Pure Genius

Classroom technology leaps forward with online dissections

Posting in Education

Virtual dissection software teaches students about frog innards, and members of Congress about the value of technology in school.

Last week, I dissected a frog in the Capitol.

Moments after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid spoke about the importance of technology in our classrooms, addressing attendees of an Education Technology Showcase on Capitol Hill, I found myself trying to find the heart of a frog. First I touched a couple organs that weren’t the heart, and the names of those organs popped up on the bottom of the touch screen. I finally found the little frog’s ticker and progressed to the next step of my dissection. There are many good things about dissecting a frog on a screen, especially for a squeamish soul like me, but on that day, I was just relieved that I didn’t walk out of the U.S. Capitol smelling like formaldehyde.

Froguts is a software program that allows students to dissect a frog (or starfish, cow eye, squid or fetal pig) at the comfort of a classroom computer. The 3-D images are clear, the simulation is powerful, and it seems like the perfect complement for kids whose second language is often videogame. So I followed up with the program’s creator and former science teacher Rick Hill to learn more about simulated dissections.

Why did you create this program?

It was after my fifth-grade daughter’s class dissected frogs, and I asked her what the heart looked like. She couldn’t tell me. I asked her about the stomach, and she couldn’t tell me. Apparently it had been such a smelly, overwhelming blur that she couldn’t even tell me the basics of what she and her classmates spent a week doing. I thought it was a shame that even with a gifted veteran teacher and an expensive lab, a student could miss the concept entirely. I fantasized about a way to do the whole thing on a computer so students could do the lesson over and over.

Are these frogs animated, or did you take pictures of real frogs?

Both. In order for it to be convincing enough for a teacher to use it had to be as realistic as possible. The majority of images are real photos or real photo textures on 3-D models.

Other than not having to deal with the smell of formaldehyde, what are the benefits of a virtual dissection?

1. You can do the lab repeatedly, without incurring extra costs.
2. It’s a guided narrative with closed captions, so it’s accessible.
3. It safer than dissection, and there are no liability concerns.
4. All students can use it, not just the students in higher-level classes who would typically do dissections.
5. It may be a more suitable learning style for today’s students, who are inundated by 3-D commercials, videogames and the Web, and most have been conditioned to process information this way.

What do science teachers like about it?

For $300 a year we allow every computer in the school to run it, and we allow teachers to make copies for themselves and their students to take home.
Preserved frogs alone can run anywhere from $4 to $20, and an average-sized bullfrog starts at around $10. Teachers seem to like our product because it engages each student in a structured manner, which reduces behavior problems and horseplay.

How many frogs are you saving a year?

Our software does make a significant ecological impact on how many animal specimens are used. Millions of people worldwide have used our subscription service, demos and kiosks, at schools, in the home school market, at zoos, aquariums and museums. We truly care about the environment, even though our foremost objective is enhancing education.

What are your memories of dissection when you were a student?

Using actual specimens hasn’t changed a whole lot. The basic tools are exactly the same--scalpel, pins, forceps, wax tray. However, formaldehyde isn’t used much anymore, so the smell is a little less noxious than I remember when I did high school dissections.

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure