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Safer Laboratory Dissection Activities

By Ken Roy

Posted on 2024-01-16

Safer Laboratory Dissection Activities

I. Introduction

Hands-on dissection activities can be a great exploration and learning experience for students, but there may be potential safety concerns that should be considered. The first major concern is where the specimen to be dissected is secured from. Teachers should only obtain the dissection specimens from commercial science suppliers, as opposed to those gathered in the woodland. Commercial science suppliers provide specimens that have been appropriately sanitized and preserved. Specimens gathered from woodland sources contain biological hazards such as microorganisms, which can be a serious threat to the health and safety of students and their teacher during dissection.

An article available on ResearchGate, “Outbreaks of Salmonellosis at Elementary Schools Associated with Dissection of Owl Pellets,” focused on Salmonella outbreaks that occurred at two elementary schools. Both of these examples involved owl pellets secured from woodland sources.

Approximately 40 outbreak cases occurred at two elementary schools, resulting from dissection of owl pellets in a science club activity. At one school, the owl pellets were found to have been dissected on a cafeteria table in concert with after-school child care in the same location. The table used for the dissection was not sanitized before after-school-care students had their snack time or before the following school lunch time.

At the second elementary school, the owl pellets were dissected in a science room where fewer cases of Salmonella occurred. The pellets were secured from a captive barred owl. The outbreak of Salmonella Typhimurium was isolated from the owl's pellets and feces, and from four frozen chicks used to feed the owl.

Additional occurrences have been reported in other schools with similar owl pellet activities, again involving specimens secured from woodland sources. Clearly safety preparations and applications of safety protocols were almost totally ignored in all of these incidents, starting with the source of the specimens. These actions put both students’ and teachers’ health and safety at high-level risk.   

Animal and plant dissections also have had their issues. An eighth-grade student pursued a negligence claim against his school district resulting from his cutting through two of his fingers and severing a tendon with a scalpel used while dissecting a flower in science class. The student’s science teacher did not show her students the safety hazards and resulting risks of using a scalpel before beginning the flower dissection lab. Two students had cuts on the very first day of the activity. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the student who brought the lawsuit, given the teacher's failure to adjust her approach to the lab activity safety-wide and making the school system liable for negligence.   

A final example of unsafe dissection involves frivolous and inhumane displays of cats to be dissected. A news article, “Top School to End Dissection Class After Students Make Dead Cats 'Dance' in Video,” reported that an Oklahoma school had found itself in hot water after a video surfaced online featuring several of its students performing a choreographed “dance” to a popular jingle with dead cats. The sad part is the teacher actually condoned the activity! 

II. The Safety Issues With Traditional Laboratory Dissections

A number of potential biological, chemical, and physical safety hazards and resulting health and safety risks are associated with traditional hands-on laboratory dissection activities. An article I wrote for NSTA’s middle-level journal, Science Scope,Dissection—Don’t Cut Out Safety,” addresses potential safety hazards in dealing with traditional dissection activities.

For example, traditional dissection activities involve the use of chemical preservatives such as formalin. Preservatives for dissection specimens in many cases tend to be toxic and hazardous. In most cases, commercial supply houses use formalin, alcohol, ethylene glycol, or frozen water types of preservatives. Before purchasing any specimens for dissection, teachers need to obtain the Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) from the supplier for review of the preservative’s chemical content to help decide what to order. 

Some specimen dissection preservatives can potentially expose students and their teachers to chemical safety hazards and resulting health and safety risks, including hazardous vapors, particulate, skin and eye exposure, and more. In some instances, new science teachers have found old containers of specimens or specimens in jars left by former science teachers. Many of these specimens have been found to be decades old and containing formaldehyde preservative. In this case, the science teacher and/or department head needs to contact the department’s chemical hygiene officer or the school’s safety officer to have the dissection specimens appropriately removed and discarded by a commercial hazardous waste removal company.

Potential physical hazards without appropriate safety training can include skin lacerations, digit and tendon cutting, and other injuries. Teachers need to ensure that sharp instruments, such as scissors, scalpels, and other tools, are used safely and appropriately. Remind students about sharps and their danger. Have a first aid action plan should a student receive a cut.

Personal protective equipment (PPE), such as gloves, indirectly vented chemical splash goggles, and non-latex aprons, must be available and used by students, teachers, and visitors to the instructional space (laboratory or classroom) when dissection activities are taking place. PPE is necessary and required when working with materials that can put eyes in harm’s way, such as preservatives and body fluids. Such an activity requires indirectly vented chemical-splash goggles, not safety glasses.

Traditional dissection activities must also be conducted in an appropriate physical environment with the proper ventilation, lighting, furniture, equipment, and supplies including hot water and soap for cleanup. Washing hands is standard operating procedure at all times when a laboratory activity is completed. Without proper ventilation, occupants will be exposed to potentially hazardous vapors from certain preservatives used in specimens.

Potential biological hazards might include exposure to harmful microbes, including bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Again, be mindful that these issues result from using specimens from woodland sources, not commercially prepared specimens from science suppliers. Commercially prepared specimens are safer for use in dissection activities because they are preserved, so no microbe exposure would occur. 

Teachers should address issues such as allergies to animal specimens and squeamishness about dealing with them. Given the high frequency of student chemical sensitivities, it is necessary to check with students and the school nurse on potential allergies and their symptoms of exposure before undertaking any hands-on dissection activities in the instructional space. Given all these potential safety hazards and resulting health and safety risks, it may be difficult to meet the appropriate safety requirements, even under adult supervision. Should an accident like an injury occur at the home site resulting from conducting the assigned traditional dissection, the classroom teacher and school district under duty or standard of care could potentially be liable.

Another recently published edCircuit article that James Palcik and I wrote, “Dissections in Schools—Traditional vs. Digital,” addresses the pluses and minuses of hands-on traditional dissection activities and digital dissection alternatives. The article specifically states that traditional laboratory dissections can have certain drawbacks. Conducting a hands-on dissection can be time consuming in a crowded required curriculum and requires significant expertise to perform accurately and safely. 

The NSTA Board of Directors have adopted a revised position statement, Responsible Use of Live Animals and Dissection in the Science Classroom, which also provides critical guidance on both traditional dissections and virtual dissections. (Appropriate better professional safety practices are provided in section III of this blog post.) The position statement says that NSTA recommends that science teachers adhere to specific safety-related behaviors when performing dissections.  

The bottom line is that there are multiple potential safety hazards and resulting health and safety risks that require appropriate safety actions for a safer traditional hands-on science laboratory dissection activity. Before initiating traditional laboratory dissections, teachers need to conduct a potential hazard analysis and resulting health and safety risk assessment and implement appropriate safety actions to protect students and themselves.

Additional safety information about commercial dissection specimens is often available online at the supplier’s website. For example, Carolina Biological Supply’s “FAQs About Dissection Safety,” available in Carolina’s Knowledge Center, provides a large amount of relative safety information about traditional hands-on dissection activities.  

III. Better Professional Safety Practices for Hands-on Traditional Dissection Activities

NSTA’s position statement on Responsible Use of Live Animals and Dissection in the Science Classroom provides a list of recommended safety-related protocols for a safer teaching/learning traditional dissection laboratory experience. The association acknowledges that science educators as professionals are in the best position to determine when to use—or not use—traditional hands-on dissection activities. NSTA supports each teacher’s decision to use dissection activities that help students 

1. develop skills of observation and comparison;
2. discover the shared and unique structures and processes of specific organisms; and 
3. develop a greater appreciation for the complexity of life.

However, NSTA further recommends specific areas of focus regarding safety that science teachers need to address for traditional hands-on dissection activities as better professional safety practices. Here are a few examples:

• Plan laboratory and dissection activities that are appropriate to the maturity level of the students. 
• Use prepared specimens purchased from a reputable and reliable scientific supply company. An acceptable alternative source for fresh specimens (i.e., squid, chicken wings) would be a Food and Drug Administration (FDA)–inspected facility, such as a butcher shop, fish market, or supermarket. The use of salvaged specimens or those secured from woodland sources do not reflect safer practice.
• Conduct laboratory and dissection activities in a clean and organized workspace with care and laboratory precision. 
• Conduct dissections in an appropriate physical environment with the proper ventilation, lighting, furniture, equipment, and supplies, including hot water and soap for cleanup. 
• Use personal protective equipment, such as vinyl gloves, indirectly vented chemical splash goggles, and non-latex aprons, all of which should be available and used by students, teachers, and visitors to the classroom. 
• Address such issues as allergies and squeamishness about dealing with animal specimens. 
• Ensure that the specimens are handled and disposed of properly. 
• Ensure that sharp instruments, such as scissors, scalpels, and other tools, are used safely and appropriately. 
• Base laboratory and dissection activities on carefully planned curriculum objectives.

IV. Alternative Digital Dissection Activities

As NSTA further notes in the position statement mentioned earlier, teachers need to be sensitive to students’ views regarding traditional dissection activities, and should be cognizant of students’ beliefs and their right to make an informed decision about their participation in traditional hands-on dissection activities. Teachers, especially those at the primary level, should be especially aware of students’ ages and maturity levels when deciding whether to have traditional hands-on animal dissection. Should a teacher feel that an alternative to dissection would be a better option for a student or group of students, it is important that the teacher select a meaningful alternative. Teachers also need to be prepared to present an alternative to dissection to students whose views or beliefs make this activity uncomfortable and difficult for them. In addition, teachers need to conduct laboratory and traditional hands-on dissection activities with consideration and appreciation for the organism.

As stated in the Dissections in Schools—Traditional vs. Digital publication, virtual dissection activities using digital tools such as computer software, 3D models, and interactive simulations can provide a realistic, interactive experience of studying anatomy. Virtual dissections can offer several advantages over traditional dissections. Students can perform them remotely, which reduces costs; accessibility is increased, since the biology lab is not a necessity for this activity; and very importantly, virtual dissections provide a safer approach. Finally, virtual dissection is also more ethical, as it does not require using live animals or specimens for investigation.

Some states have, in fact, carried this a step further by passing legislation regulating student exemptions from traditional dissection activities. For example, the Connecticut State Legislature passed a bill regulating exemptions from dissection. It reads as follows; see

Be it enacted by the Connecticut Senate and House of Representatives in General Assembly convened:
Section 1. Effective July 1, 2013

A local or regional school district shall excuse any student from participating in, or observing, the dissection of any animal as part of classroom instruction, provided the parent or guardian of such student has requested, in writing, that such student be excused from such participation or observation.

Any student excused from participating in, or observing, the dissection of any animal as part of classroom instruction shall be required to complete an alternate assignment to be determined by the local or regional school district. 

In addition to Connecticut, approximately 20 states and the District of Columbia offer dissection choice. Science teachers should be aware if their state legally requires dissection choice. Check this website to see if your state has that legal requirement:

A recent study listed on ERIC, “Animal Dissection vs. Non-Animal Teaching Methods: A Systematic Review of Pedagogical Value,” showed a growing number of studies suggest that non-animal teaching methods (NAMs; e.g., virtual anatomy tools and three-dimensional models) are better for achieving learning goals compared to traditional dissection. The study involved a systematic review of studies published between 2005 and 2020 that evaluated the pedagogical value of NAMs versus traditional animal dissection activities. The results from 20 published studies showed that in 95% of the studies (19/20), students at all education levels (secondary, postsecondary, and medical school) performed at least as well—and in most of those studies, better (14/19)—when they used NAMs compared to when they did animal dissection. 

In addition, legal safety standards, better professional safety practices, along with research studies, are supported by a number of professional organizations. For example, Animalearn, the educational division of the American Anti-Vivisection Society, provides alternative dissection information for educators. As stated on the Animalearn website, they “strive to build awareness about animal use in the classroom and help to nurture a respect for all creatures. Animalearn helps both educators and students find the most effective non-animal methods to teach and study science.” They provide resources to help teachers make a balanced decision regarding the use of dissection activities in the science instructional space. It also demonstrates the efficacy of non-animal methods in place of specimen dissection.

One other important set of non-traditional dissection resources for science teachers in addressing the dissection issue is The Science Bank. It is the largest free lending library of humane science products in the United States, including a free animal loan program.  

Additional resources for hands-on, non-animal methods that teachers can consider in place of traditional animal dissections include the following examples:

Anatomy in Clay” (This system has been used in many instances as a replacement for cat dissections as well as human anatomy exploration.)

“Syndaver”—Frog and Cat Models 

V. Final Thoughts

As pointed out in the edCircuit publication Dissections in Schools—Traditional vs. Digital, both traditional dissection and virtual dissection have advantages and disadvantages. The suitability of traditional hands-on dissection vs. virtual dissection depends on various factors such as cost, accessibility, ethical considerations, and safety. While traditional dissection offers a hands-on experience that allows students to understand the three-dimensional structure of an organism’s organs and tissues, virtual dissection provides a more ethical, cost-effective, and potentially safer means to study anatomy.

When considering selecting traditional dissection, virtual dissection, or both options, teachers need to follow the guidance from their local school system and local/state standards/regulations. In addition, they need to provide access to those students who may not want to participate in a hands-on traditional specimen dissection by using a digital or simulated solution. Adopting both approaches in tandem with students may be an alternative mechanism to increase engagement and overall understanding of these organisms’ biotic processes and taxonomy and lead to greater awareness and appreciation of living things on our planet. At minimum, one instructional strategy proposed would be to have the teacher provide students access to the digital version of a specific animal or plant dissection as a pre-lab activity. In addition, all relevant safety protocols must be reviewed with students prior to actual traditional hands-on laboratory activity. In this way, students are better prepared for a safer actual hands-on activity in the laboratory afterward.

Submit questions regarding safety to Ken Roy at Follow Ken Roy on X: @drroysafersci.

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