Humane Technology in Science Education

Alex 1For decades, live dissections have been the cornerstone of anatomy lessons in high school biology classes. According to the American Anti-Vivisection Society (2012), frogs, rats, cats and fetal pigs were often the staple of scientific experiments for students. In 1959, two PhD scientists published The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique, in which they called for the reduction, refinement, and replacement (3Rs) of animals in research, testing, and learning, but it was not until the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 that changes slowly began to be adopted [1]. While many high school science classes have stopped using vertebrate animals for dissection, other animals are still being utilized in classrooms nationwide. Fish, insects, and more primitive organisms continue to be used for experimentation in classroom and laboratory settings.

In 2012, an international group of cognitive scientists signed The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, which states in part that, “The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states.” It continues to say, “Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors.” In short, The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness declares that the human brain isn’t the only one capable of consciousness, and many primitive animals have varying degrees of awareness, along with a developed perception of stimuli. This means that organisms, even small ones without complex cortical structures, are cognizant of and completely capable of experiencing pain.

The Declaration has serious implications for the world of education. While vertebrate dissection and experimentation has experienced a decline in classroom environments, aquatic organisms like fish and octopi may, and probably are, aware to some extent of their gruesome involvement in a botched high school experiment. What’s surprising is the failure of educational systems to stop science instruction that uses live organisms, despite the availability of preferable alternatives. In fact, only 18 of the 50 states have legislation requiring schools to provide alternatives for live dissections [2]. According to psychologist and educator Dr. Theodora Capaldo, “Classes involving animal use may have negative psychological effects on students. Furthermore, such classes may not contribute to the proper attitude-building of students, i.e. that animals deserve respect and have an intrinsic value.” [3].

Experiments that cause stress and pain on animals as well as the students who use them remain a prevalent aspect of science education although superior technological models exist that can be used (USDA, National Agriculture Library), thus, for that reason, “top medical schools such as Yale, Stanford, Harvard, Tufts, Emory, Duke, and Boston University, have eliminated live animal laboratories in favor of modern, cost-effective, and humane alternatives such as manikins, human patient simulators, and other interactive and advanced computer simulations” [3]. Costs to school districts include buying, shipping, storing, and disposing of animal models. The benefits of interactive virtual software far outweigh the negligible drawbacks. Hundreds of virtual simulations like Froguts.com and V-Frog or CatWorks offer not only a more humane replacement to live dissections, but are generally more cost-effective, reliable, and in many cases in-depth than traditional experiments.

Educational software is a valuable addition to classes in other strands of education as well. Math and physics classes benefit greatly from virtual simulations showing the derivations of certain formulas or explaining difficult concepts with ease using virtual representations and diagrams. The Stanford Maintenance of Certification in Anesthesiology (MOCA), relies on simulation-based education to gauge proficiency in anesthesiology instead of using dogs, as was done in the early 1920s [4]. The Da Vinci Surgical System, which I saw being used at Intuitive Surgical, Inc., is a minimally invasive robotic surgery device, offers many simulation-training exercises for surgeons to practice with instead of using mammals such as pigs or sheep.

Simulations have grown increasingly prominent in the education world, replacing many inconvenient processes with intuitive and innovative ones. An inexpensive and humane alternative would surely be received well by educators, and the growth of compassionate simulations is inevitable. Cruelty-free education is advocated by the New England Anti-Vivisection Society (NEAVS), as well as Johns Hopkins University’s Alternatives to Animal Testing Web Site (Altweb) [5].

As someone who just spent part of this past summer teaching 4th to 6th graders hands-on about various animals and their care and welfare, I believe that the evidence discussed in The Declaration of Consciousness is self-evident.

References:

  1. Russell, W.M.S. & Burch, R.L. (1959). The Principles Of Humane Experimental Technique. Retrieved from http://altweb.jhsph.edu/pubs/books/humane_exp/het-toc
  2. Animalearn (2012). Laws and Legislation (K-12). Retrieved from http://www.animalearn.org/highSchoolLaws.php#.V6Ui4JMrKRu
  3. American Anti-Vivisection Society (2012). Animal Use in Education. Retrieved from http://www.dyingtolearn.org/animalUseHistory.html
  4. Goyal, R. (2015). Animal testing in the history of anesthesia: Now and then, some stories, some facts. J Anaesthesiol Clin Pharmacol. 2015 Apr-Jun; 31(2): 149–151. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4411824
  5. New England Anti-Vivisection Society (2016). Alternatives In Education. Retrieved from http://www.neavs.org/alternatives/in-education

Image References:

  1. http://pad3.whstatic.com/images/thumb/4/43/Dissect-a-Frog-Step-9.jpg/aid468831-728px-Dissect-a-Frog-Step-9.jpg

Alex Xu is a senior at Lynbrook High School in San Jose, California. He is an interpreter for the Tech Museum in San Jose and is passionate about computer science and new technology. Alex aspires to use technology to educate middle and elementary school students.

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