Dissecting A Frog: A Middle School Rite Of Passage

Feb 25, 2015
Originally published on April 8, 2015 2:41 pm

For this series, we've been thinking a lot about the iconic tools that some of us remember using — if only for a short time — in our early schooling. Things like the slide rule and protractor, the Presidential Fitness Test and wooden blocks.

Among the Bunsen burners and petri dishes of Rob Glotfelty's life sciences lab sits a stack of curious packages: dead frogs, vacuum-sealed and piled five high.

Once those seals are broken, these leopard frogs emit a pungent odor. And, even in death, they're remarkably slimy.

Which is why some of the seventh-graders at Baltimore's Patterson Park Public Charter School are seriously grossed out.

"I don't want to cut open no live animal," says student Taylor Smith, who is thoroughly hidden beneath a black smock, plastic goggles and rubber gloves. "I'm gonna throw up on it."

Taylor, like many of her classmates, doesn't want to touch, much less splay open this formaldehyde-laced frog and pick out its dark, stringy organs.

Glotfelty's goal is to get them over the squeamish hump.

"But are we really interested in how frogs' bodies work?" Glotfelty asks the class. "Have we been studying frogs? No. What have we been studying?"

The answer: Humans.

Though frogs are a step up. First, the class cut open an earthworm, then a chicken wing. In high school the animals get even bigger. Rats, cats, and fetal pigs all give insight into how our own bodies work.

"There's something visceral and important about the real thing," says David Evans, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. "What does this particular organ feel like? How stiff is it? Is it compressible?"

Using dead animals to make these connections used to be the only option for students, whether they liked it or not. But that changed in 1987, when 15-year-old Jenifer Graham of Victorville, Calif., refused to dissect a frog in her biology class.

Graham's story was big news at the time. She took her case to court, which ultimately led to a state law that requires students be given an alternative to real animals. At least nine other states have done the same.

Ever since, computer-based models have been filtering their way into the classroom. The National Science Teachers Association now asks educators to give students a choice, though it also insists on the fundamental importance of dissection as a teaching tool.

Glotfelty uses both methods. The computer model helps kids understand anatomical theory, he says, but actual dissection engages them in a rare way.

"They've been looking forward to this all year. This is the thing they want to do," Gotfelty says.

And, indeed, even the faint of heart now seem eager to get started, bouncing around their dissection trays.

As for Taylor Smith, who says she doesn't like science — she's about to use tiny scissors to cut through the frog's collarbone.

"Sort of force it," says Glotfelty. "You might hear some popping and some crackling."

One by one, Taylor and her team lay the organs on a laminated sheet of paper.

"I'm not a chicken anymore," she says. "I like this."

While dissection remains a controversial practice to some, Glotfelty says Taylor's turnaround exemplifies its power: that a kid who normally doesn't even like science can get downright excited about frog guts.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The smell of formaldehyde, that first cut into the earthworm or the frog - you probably remember that time you dissected an animal in science class. These days, there's a computer program for that. But dissection is still a pretty universal classroom experience, and it's the next part of our Tools of the Trade series from NPR's Ed Team. Will Huntsberry reports.

WILL HUNTSBERRY, BYLINE: Right around the Bunsen burners and Petri dishes of Rob Glotfelty's science lab, there's a stack of strange packages - vacuum-sealed frogs piled five high.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Screaming).

HUNTSBERRY: These are leopard frogs, and they are slimy and smelly. Some kids want none of it.

TAYLOR SMITH: Oh, I ain't taking it out of the bag. I cut it there. My job is done.

HUNTSBERRY: That's Taylor Smith. She's a seventh grader at Patterson Park Middle in Baltimore. She's decked out in her black smock, plastic goggles and rubber gloves. But she's not as ready as she looks.

TAYLOR: I don't want to cut open no live animal. I'm gonna throw up on it.

HUNTSBERRY: Taylor's like a bunch of other kids in the room. She doesn't want to touch, much less cut, an actual frog. So she's going to be our dissection guide today, because Glotfelty's goal is to get kids like her over the squeamish hump.

Somebody's going to have to cut, because the mission is to splay open this formaldehyde-laced little frog and then pick out the stringy dark-colored organs one by one.

ROB GLOTFELTY: Are we really interested in how frogs' bodies work? Like, have we been studying frogs?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: No.

GLOTFELTY: No. What have we been studying?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Humans - and frogs are similar to humans.

HUNTSBERRY: But they don't start with a frog. First, they cut open an earthworm and then a chicken wing. In high school, the animals get even bigger. Rats, cats and fetal pigs all give insight into how our own bodies work.

DAVID EVANS: There's something visceral and important about the real thing.

HUNTSBERRY: It's almost representative of scientific inquiry itself, says David Evans. He heads the National Science Teachers Association. You experiment on something real and ask questions about it.

EVANS: What does this particular organ feel like? How stiff is it? Is it compressible?

HUNTSBERRY: Using dead animals to make these connections used to be the only way business was done, whether a kid liked it or not. But in 1987, one student came along and changed all that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCOTT SIMON: This month, Jenifer Graham who is a 15-year-old student at Victor Valley High School in Victorville, Calif. will ask the school board there to permit her to refuse to dissect frogs in her high school biology class.

HUNTSBERRY: This was big news at the time. Because of Graham, California passed a law that students have to be given alternatives. And since then, at least nine other states have done the same. And the alternatives - Graham went on to champion them as in this commercial.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

JENIFER GRAHAM: Last year in my biology class, I refused to dissect a frog. I didn't want to hurt a living thing. I said I would be happy to do it on an Apple computer. That way, I can learn and the frog lives.

HUNTSBERRY: Ever since, computer-based models have been filtering their way into the classroom. The Science Teachers Association now asks educators to give students a choice, but the group also insists on the fundamental importance of being able to dissect. Glotfelty uses both methods. The computers help kids see, he says, but the dissection makes them appreciate.

GLOTFELTY: They've been looking forward to this all year. Like, this is the thing that they want to do.

HUNTSBERRY: And the kids all around the room do seem completely hooked. Or maybe it's just the formaldehyde.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Oh my gosh.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: Ewww (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

HUNTSBERRY: Everybody's literally bouncing around their trays. And Taylor Smith, who says she doesn't like science, she's about to use tiny scissors to cut through the collarbone.

GLOTFELTY: Sort of force it.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: Force it.

GLOTFELTY: You might - you might hear some popping and cracking. It's like the bottom of his jaw, right? So we can see where his like esophagus and trachea are. There it is. That's right. That's why we have goggles on.

HUNTSBERRY: One by one, she and her team organize all the little frog organs on a laminated sheet of paper.

TAYLOR: I'm not a chicken anymore.

HUNTSBERRY: In fact, she's kind of starting to enjoy it.

TAYLOR: This ain't so bad. I like this.

HUNTSBERRY: That's the power of dissection, says Glotfelty - to take a kid who normally doesn't even like science and get them excited about frog guts. Will Huntsberry, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.