Every year millions of animals are used in pre-college science courses. In biology, anatomy, and physiology classes, students of all ages participate in dissection labs involving cats or fetal pigs—two of the most commonly dissected animals—along with mice, rats, birds, fish, and many invertebrates. Frogs account for roughly half of the animals dissected in elementary and secondary schools, and approximately six million vertebrate animals, along with an estimated equal number of invertebrates, are killed for high school dissection classes every year.1 Educational curriculums typically introduce dissection in high school, although some schools start as early as sixth grade.
While many pre-college science courses use animals for dissection purposes, psychology, physiology courses, and science fair projects often use live animals. For example, chick-hatching demonstrations are a popular science fair project; however, the chicks may suffer improper care during incubation and just after hatching and at the end of the project they are usually euthanized. In the case of live animals in the classroom, animals kept as “pets” typically live in small cages and may suffer from neglect, or in experiments involving “pithing,” students may inflict severe harm and suffering before they actually kill the animal during or after the science experiment. In psychology classes, students often use rats to demonstrate principles of conditioning (a kind of learning). The rat is kept in a very small cage and taught to press a bar to obtain food, or may be shocked to demonstrate “avoidance” behaviors or other simulated learning activities. Teachers and students may neglect the animals during the course of the class and some animals don’t even survive until the end of the experiment. Food deprivation to simulate “motivated” behavior is also a typical class exercise. After the project, the rats are frequently killed, or given or sold to pet stores, usually as food for snakes. Less frequently, students take rats home. Students who have an ethical disagreement with confining or using an animal in this manner find the experiments distressing. There are computer programs available which teach the same operant conditioning principles, such as “Sniffy: The Virtual Rat”—a computer rat designed for use in psychology courses.
In terms of legislation protecting animals, “no federal legal requirements or oversight pertain to use of animals in the lower [pre-college] grades,”2 as the Animal Welfare Act (AWA “does not regulate animals used in elementary or secondary education.”3 Various science organizations such as the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) have issued specific recommendations for the use and care of animals in precollege education to address this lack of regulation. While an important first step, the recommendations are merely that, recommendations, versus legally binding requirements to ensure proper animal care.
There are a number of states, however, that have taken legal steps to ensure a student’s right not to have to participate in animal dissection, thus decreasing the number of animals killed for this explicit purpose. Currently, 11 states have student choice laws that allow K-12 public school (and sometimes also private school) students to use non-animal alternatives in place of traditional animal dissections without penalty. Five additional states and Washington D.C. have similar policies in place, either as a state or as Department of Education Resolution.
Without such legal protections, students of conscience and compassion who refuse to harm animals and yet had aspired to a career in sciences are cut short in middle and high schools across the U.S.—making the willingness to hurt or kill an animal an unspoken requirement to enter science. Many students taking a high school biology class will change career choices when confronted by the prospect of mandatory dissections. Anecdotal evidence demonstrates that girls are especially likely to abandon science if faced with forced dissection—not because of erroneously labeled “squeamishness” but from a commitment to their humane ethics and a willingness to take a stand. Considering the low percentage of women in the sciences and the fact that the newly emerging field of bioethics is now an important and integral part of the field of biology, science education must progress and provide alternatives for ethically conscious individuals who are the future of science—and the promise of scientifically superior and more humane alternatives throughout the fields of science education, research, and testing.
Today, alternative dissection programs, CDs/DVDs, or models are widely available, most of which are cost-effective or available at no cost, and all provide comparable learning experiences to traditional animal dissections. Research suggests that students who learn from models, computerized dissection software programs, charts, interactive CD-ROMs and DVDs, audiovisual aids, anatomical clay models, or other alternatives perform as well or better on tested subject matter as do students who used specimens.4 In addition to superior learning, non-animal alternatives allow students to learn at their own pace, to easily make up missed classes or content, and ultimately to make learning more fun, interactive, and humane. They allow students the freedom of their ethical conscience…and therefore, more openness to the lessons to be learned.
NEAVS believes that all 50 states and their school boards should adopt dissection choice laws and policies and ensure that there is fair and equitable access to science education across the nation. NEAVS and its educational affiliate, the Ethical Science Education Coalition (ESEC), played the key role in the 2005 enactment of the Massachusetts Department of Education’s student choice policy, which protects students who choose not to participate in animal dissection and allows them to learn through available humane alternatives. NEAVS/ESEC has also provided testimony, resources, and organizer support to dozens of other states' student choice bills, from Maine to California.
NEAVS/ESEC works to ensure that academic threat, punishment, or failure does not compromise a student’s right to a quality education because of ethical decisions not to dissect or use animals in a harmful way. Through ESEC, we offer dissection alternative programs and support students at the high school, college, and professional school levels.
 Hart, L. A., Wood, M. W., & Hart, B.L. (2008). Why Dissection? Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
 U.S. Department of Agriculture. (n.d.). Animal Welfare, Publications, Reports and Updates. Hughes, I. E. (2001). Do computer simulations of laboratory practicals meet learning needs? Trends Pharmacol Sci, 22(2), 71-74.