NEW PORT RICHEY, FL – It's a rite of passage in schools across the U.S.: frog dissection.
Sometimes it happens in middle school, sometimes in high school. Feelings about the lesson are generally summed up in one word: gross. The frogs are slimy and greenish-grey, and they stink because they're pickled in formaldehyde.
One Florida high school recently tried to eliminate the gross-out factor by using fake, yet highly realistic, frogs. The school and the company that makes the synthetic frogs — not to mention animal rights groups like PETA — hope this will change how dissections are handled in classrooms across the country.
“The experience is all about understanding the relationship between organs, what they look like, what they feel like,” said Chris Sakezles, the founder and CEO of Syndaver Labs, a Tampa company that also makes synthetic human cadavers and other life-like human and animal body parts. “We do that without the ethical concerns about having to kill an animal. Without exposing them to biohazards.”
J.W. Mitchell High School in New Port Richey was, according to PETA and school officials, the first in the world to try out the new technology. The school sits about a half hour north of Tampa, where Syndaver's labs are located, and the partnership started not with a frog, but a bunny.
School Principal Jessica Schultz had brought her pet rabbit to a veterinarian who happened to also work with Syndaver. They got to talking about frog dissection and the company's work with synthetic animals for veterinary students. Eventually, Schultz brought some of her students to Syndaver and they created lesson plans around the synthetic frogs.
In late November, her students dissected the first of the fake frogs. They cut the skin and extracted the anatomically correct organs.
“Kids went to town, to be quite honest,” said Schultz. “We had kids that literally deboned the fake frogs.”
Said Miah Ulibarri, a 17-year-old junior: “I was actually scared to cut it because I kept thinking about cutting into a real frog.”
Ulibarri started the year knowing she'd have to dissect something for her forensic science class, and she wasn't looking forward to it. Students could opt out, Schultz said, and many often did during the dissection day.
“Just let the animal be,” Ulibarri said. “Why kill them on purpose to dissect them?”
Another student, 17-year-old senior Nail Koney-Laryea, said the frogs had a startlingly realistic look and feel to them. They were still slimy, and a squeeze of the leg yields a fragile bone inside. When kids cut inside the breastbone and stomach, they were able to see individual organs. Unlike real frogs, the delicate organ tissue didn't dissolve and explode.
“If you blindfolded me before I touched it, I wouldn't be able to tell the difference,” said Koney-Laryea, who noted that several students had opted out of dissecting fetal pigs, frogs, and rats in previous classes due to moral disagreements with cutting open an animal that was once alive.
Schultz said no students opted out of the dissection unit with the fake frog.
“We have to find ways to engage students with more interactive lessons and more relevant material,” she said.
The barrier to widespread use of fake frogs could be the cost: Each frog is about $150, and PETA helped fund part of this project. But Syndaver's Sakezles said they're trying to whittle that price down through automated production and recycling of materials. If the kids don't debone the frogs, the skeleton and body can be stuffed with new organs, sewn up and re-used. Real frogs cost about $10 each.
“It's a wonderful substitution for a student who would opt out of a real dissection,” said Beth Allan, a University of Central Oklahoma biology professor and president-elect of the National Science Teachers Association. She has concerns about the cost, saying only wealthier schools could afford to buy $150 frogs, and hopes the price tag will eventually come down. “A synthetic frog is one more step, and a positive step, to provide good high quality materials for students.”
Sakezles says his company is developing fetal pigs, rats and other animals for classroom dissection.
“The plan is to completely replace the use of real animals,” he said.