Although dissection lab is not experimental science, there are very good reasons for high school students to engage in dissection. First, dissection is very useful in helping students better visualize biological structures. These apply both narrowly and more widely. Dissecting a sheep or cow eye not only teaches the student about sheep and cows, but they can apply that knowledge to the human eye. Secondly, dissection gives students confidence in their later labs. Dissection requires some amount of skill and precision, but there is no expectation of achieving a specific result as with later labs the students will experience in chemistry and other areas of science. Thirdly, when you take dissection in incremental steps, they gradually get used to the “yucky stuff” involved with dissection, which may help them get over queasiness that may be associated with the medical field.
To get started with dissection, you will need several items: a dissection kit, a dissection tray, an instruction book and one or more specimens, you might also want to print lab sheets or worksheets. There are YouTube videos available of many different types of dissection that can help walk nervous students (and parents!) through the process.
There are several different dissection kits available. Personally, I really like the advanced dissection kit from Home Training Tools. The set has everything most students will need while keeping the price low. The scalpel is sharp, but easy to handle. The tweezers, probes and everything are made well enough to last through several kids. I added extra pins, extra scalpel blades and a magnifying glass to our kit. Note the instructions on how to change scalpel blades on the site, many people have trouble figuring it out without help.
I own this dissection tray. It is currently being used by my second child, having made it through several dissections with my eldest. It is still holding up very well. I appreciate the reusable aspect because it means that it’s always at hand.
You can see the tray at work dissecting an earthworm with pins in it in the featured photo.
We use this how-to book: How to Dissect by William Berman. This one book contains great basic information on dissection as well instructions for dissecting many different specimens, including all of the specimens that most students will tackle in high school.
I found free dissection worksheets here for most of our specimens.
There are several YouTube channels that provide students with excellent walk-throughs that will ease the mind of anyone nervous about dissection. I feel these two are among the best:
My kids do at least the following: earthworm, clam, grasshopper, crayfish, frog, starfish and perch. More science focused and/or less grossed out kids also do: a cow eye, a squid, a dogfish shark and a fetal pig. I feel this gives the more timid a solid feel for anatomical structures, and gives the braver and/or more science-focused kids a pretty good range of specimen examples.
Carolina Biological even has a useful video for dissecting the dogfish shark.
Although I strongly recommend hands-on dissection with real specimens, there are a few students who will be extra grossed-out and/or have ethical issues with dissection. In that case, as a last resort, there are virtual dissections available. Here are a couple of the more popular options:
Jen W.– Jen is a born and bred Sooner who has spent twenty years following her military husband around the world. Jen started on her homeschooling journey when her eldest daughter learned to read at three years old, and she decided that she couldn’t screw up kindergarten that badly. That child is now a senior in high school, and they have both survived homeschooling throughout. Jen has two more children who are equally smart and have also homeschooled all along.