Research Proposal
Shannan Muskopf
Q 450 - Summer 2002

An Investigation of Dissection Simulation Software

by Shannan Muskopf


As technology becomes a more integral part of the science classroom, administrators and teachers may choose to replace traditional laboratories with computer simulations in order to cut costs and save time and resources. This study focuses on dissection simulations and how the experience of a simulated dissection compares to the experience of the dissection of a real specimen. In addition to gathering qualitative data regarding student experiences in the context of exploratory and inquiry-based science, quantitative data assesses student knowledge on the anatomy of the frog. It is the intent of this study to accurately measure the effectiveness of simulation programs to replace traditional hands-on labs that use frog specimens to facilitate the teaching of anatomy and physiology.

I. Introduction

Technology integration is listed as a state standard for Illinois science instruction. According to this goal, students should be able to use appropriate instruments, electronic equipment, computers and networks to access information, process ideas and communicate results. As a result of technology integration into the science classroom, students learn to use a range of technologies: instruments, computer hardware and software, on-line services and equipment, primary source data and images, and communication networks. (Illinois State Board of Education)

Science-oriented software has improved over the last few years, shifting from text book, encyclopedia type CD-ROMS to more interactive programs that attempt to mimic the process of inquiry based science. Many of these programs also attempts to simulate experiences a student would have in a traditional lab and provide opportunities for the learner to recreate the lab and practice experimenting and analyzing data. Simulations can also be used to supplement hands-on labs and even replace labs that are too expensive, dangerous, or ethically objectionable. For example, students can recreate the process of extracting and analyzing DNA on an online simulation sponsored by Nova. This task is usually not performed in classrooms because its very costly, includes dangerous chemicals, and the process is so specific that it is likely to fail due to student error. The simulation, however, gives students the opportunity to go through each step of a DNA extraction so that they can understand the process and not get sidetracked by minute details. In this case, the simulation gives students a virtual hands on experience, errors made in the process can easily be corrected and won’t take as much class time.

Other simulations mimic the process of dissection, where students can navigate their way through a virtual pig, frog, or human and learn the stuctures and functions of the tissues and organ systems. Very little research has been conducted to determine if laboratory simulations are as effective as the real hands-on experience. Due to the large volume and types of software simulation, this research proposal will focus particularly only on dissection simulations, as dissections are a common component of almost all introductory level biology classes, and the number of supplemental software for dissections is quite high. There are several simulations of the frog dissection and the fetal pig dissection available online or on CD ROM.

Determining the effectiveness of laboratory simulations is important because not only are the programs being used to supplement existing labs, in some cases they are being used to replace laboratory exercises altogether. Administrators and curriculum developers sometimes even encourage the replacement of traditional labs with computer simulations that are more time efficient, less labor intensive, and less expensive. Replacements of traditional hands-on labs may be cost effective, but it is not clear whether the computer simulation of the lab is an effective tool for teaching.

The use of laboratory simulations has implications in my professional life due to the fact that there has been increased pressure to cut costs and to provide alternatives to dissections. The frog dissection I do with my introductory biology class may eventually be phased out of the school’s curriculum. I would like to be able to replace it with a computer simulation that will provide students the same learning experience as a real frog dissection. In order to do this, I have to take into account the entire experience of the laboratory dissection, as students working on real frogs have the opportunity to explore, inquire and discover. Simulation software may or may not provide the same experiences. Due to an increased emphasis on state standards, I also must be cognizant of the advantages and disadvantages of using simulations to teach objectives mandated by the state of Illinois.

The use of computer simulation software for dissection is a debated topic among the scientific teaching community, as is the use of specimens for dissection, though often the debate lies in ethics and student rights to refuse to dissect. The State of Illinois passed a law in 2001 called the “Dissection Alternatives Act” which guarantees the rights of students in Illinois to refuse to dissect. Teachers are required to offer alternatives to students with no grade penalties. This law was recently used in my district by a student’s parent to demand that the student be allowed to use dissection simulation software instead of the frog specimen. Due to the law’s passage, the district purchased a single copy of a frog dissection simulation, though the science teachers had no input in what was purchased and there was no site license for the software. It is almost as if the district paid lip service to the law, but did not analyze the educational value of the software or the alternatives given to the student who objected to dissection. Due to licensing, the software purchased for this student cannot be used by entire classes to replace or supplement the current curriculum. Though I suspect, in the future, the district will have to make a greater effort to accommodate the needs of the students and address the dissection issue more thoroughly.

There is also a growing trend in science to implement inquiry-based labs rather than traditional “recipe” labs. Inquiry based labs follow a constructivist approach to learning, where students are given a problem, and are asked to work collaboratively to solve the problem using the scientific method. The dissection of the frog allows students to explore the internal anatomy of the frog and gives them an opportunity to see first-hand what the organs look like and how they are arranged. Students practice hand eye coordination, lab safety and communication skills in addition to the lesson objectives to learn the anatomy of the frog. Dissections are , however, limited in the level of inquiry-based learning because students have to follow set directions and find structures located on the frog in a specific order. In other words, if you just give a student a preserved frog and few instructions, you will end up with a mangled frog and students having learned very little. Though dissection simulations can mimic the process of cutting and finding organs, simulation software may not provide students with the holistic experience, nor is it likely to inspire any surprise learning experiences, such as the finding of eggs, or the opening of the stomach to discover the remains of the frog’s last meal.

Literary Review
Quite a few scientific journal articles focus on the dissection debate, many of which offer alternative solutions to dissections. The question for educators is whether these solutions can offer the same learning experience as the actual dissection. Software such as “Digital Frog” has won awards, but very little research was found to compare the learning experience of students who used a simulation to that of students who performed actual dissections. With the increased emphasis on state standards and testing of students, such a endeavor is worthwhile. Teachers and administrators alike should be fully cognizant of the advantages and disadvantages of using simulation software before choosing to eliminate real dissections from science curriculums.

Research is available that discuss the hands-on value of a dissection. For instance, “Fetal Pig: The High School Dissection Experience” researched through qualitative and quantitative means the the experience of high school students when dissecting the fetal pig. The conclusions reached by the study suggest the a hands-on approach gives students the opportunity to engage in real scientific study and utilize all of the five senses to develop their understanding of mammal anatomy. (Barr, G. Herzog, H, 2000). The conclusions of the study seem to suggest that the skills students learn during the process of the dissection can not be effectively recreated by using simulations, pictures, or video, because these things are not “real” and tangible to the student, nor do they encourage the use of all senses or discovery.

Considering the growing trend to modernize and use technology to replace messy, expensive, and ethically objectionable labs, determining their effectiveness as an educational tool should be a top priority for science educators. In Virtual Reality/Simulations report, authors Roxanne Ruzik and Kathy O’Connell contend that very little information is actually known about the educational value of simulation software, but that it has great potential for education. Again, research simulations to determine their effectiveness of teaching skills and concepts seems to be very limited. “The small number of studies evaluating the use of virtual reality and simulations make any conclusions about the usefulness of these teaching tools from a research perspective extremely preliminary. Still, early evidence suggests that these new tools have at least some positive effects on student learning, including learning for populations of students with learning disabilities. “ (Ruzik, R. O’Connell, K, 2002)

Other research of simulations in the area of physics and chemistry report that students using simulation software scored significantly higher on tests than students who performed the hands-on lab. It may be easier to analyze performance of physics and chemistry simulations because test scores are easily quantifiable, whereas the experience of dissecting a frog or pig is more qualitative and more difficult to assess. The value of simulations in all science areas is easy to generalize, to project how computer models can be used to replace and augment existing lessons, one can even imagine a distant future where advanced technology can replace and mimic a variety of scientific processes that are difficult to model in a classroom due to time constraints, costs, and ethics.

“Simulations mimic physical systems and processes. Computer simulations allow for hypothetical experiments such as those that break the laws of nature, as well as experiments that are dangerous, tedious, or costly in terms of access, magnitude, finance or time. They provide opportunities to sidestep the issue of ethics for animal dissection experiments while allowing for tidy experiments.” ( Leonard, W. 1989 )

Several sources also compare the projected value of computer simulations over real dissections. For instance, mistakes made on a computer simulation can be corrected and the student can start over, whereas mistakes made on a real specimen could result in the specimen being ruined. Students cannot easily reverse cuts or removals of organs that were completed incorrectly. Students also become easily distracted by the procedure itself and fail to achieve the lesson objectives, and misbehavior is not uncommon during laboratory dissection. ( Battle, T. 2002 ). Certainly my own experience with classroom dissections shows that many students will “ooh” and “aah” over the specimen and poke at it, but it takes a good deal of effort to circulate and keep the students on task and help them locate organs. Many students report that they enjoy doing the frog dissection, but test scores on frog anatomy are often low. In other words, they like playing with the frog and seeing its guts, but often fail to achieve objectives related to anatomy and physiology.

Though the possibilities for using technology to explore scientific processes and concepts are easy to visualize, the actuality of replacing a real hands-on experience with a computer simulation experience has dubious educational benefits. Research that compares simulation versus actual dissection will be a valuable step in determining whether students can develop the same skills from a simulation that they can from the real thing.

Simulation Reviews

Though many of the simulations bill themselves as “interactive” the actual amount of interactivity varies from module to module. The majority of the simulations give photos or animations where the user clicks on a target which causes a step to the next screen. The point and click functions do give the students a chance to practice what they have learned about frog and reinforce their knowledge of the structures and their functions. The majority of the software does not allow for a great deal of exploration, the clicking functions follow a set path, and students have few choices with what to click on.

The lack of exploration potential in these simulations is not that different from the steps required of them in the real lab. Specific instructions must be followed in the cutting and opening of a body cavity and the removal or organs, without this specific sequence, students will not be able to locate and analyze structures and details will be missed. In this respect, simulations do mirror the process of dissection. On the other hand, a real dissection has the advantage of offering the possibility to explore and compare the real frogs which may not always look alike, as opposed to simulation software that uses pictures that are always the same. A real dissection also can result in exploratory learning because real frogs sometimes have anomolies, mutations and other unexpected traits that students find during the dissection experience.

Digital Frog 2 is used widely in classrooms as a dissection alternative. The software provides students with a complete reference to all major body systems of a frog (circulatory, musculoskeletal, urogenital, control, digestive and respiratory) --using text, diagrams, and 3D animations. Watch blood flow through the heart, cellular division, muscle/skeleton interaction and other vital processes, all with the click of a mouse. (Velgos, 2002). Digital Frog 2, is not a free online service, and its costs to a district could be very high depending on how many licenses must be purchase.

Online alternatives are free for students with access to the internet and many have the same components and functionality that commercial software has. The advantage of using an internet based simulation is that students can access sites from their homes or from the library outside of class periods. Whole Frog Project uses a Common Gateway Interface script that allows the user to manipulate the frog by turning the virtual specimen, enlarging and viewing from various angles. The disadvantage of the Virtual Frog Dissection is that images are mostly static drawn pictures of the frog and students are limited in what they can click on. The interface of the frog dissection is slow (depending on connection speed) and not very intuitive. (Robertson, Johnston, Nip, 2002)

Froguts uses shockwave to simulate the dissection. Its graphics are much smoother than the CGI interface of the Whole Frog Project. Froguts allows students to use a virtual scalpel to open the frog, with clickable images and descriptions of the structures being viewed. Froguts also has interactive quizzes for students to review what they have learned. The module is very intuitive and most students should not have any trouble working through the virtual frog dissection and the shockwave format is visually appealing and fast.

Resources for Dissection Alternatives

Froguts - An Amazing Online Virtual Frog Dissection

Virtual Frog Dissection Kit (Whole Frog Project)

Digital Frog 2

II. Problem Statement

A. How do dissection simulations compare to real dissections in terms of learning experience and test scores?
B. Hypothesis: Students who use dissection simulations will develop the same knowledge and understanding of anatomy as students who perform real dissections, as evidenced by test scores and survey instruments.
C. Prediction of Expected Outcomes: Students who perform simulations of frog dissections will score as well on tests as students who performed real dissections with regard to anatomy and functions of organs and develop similar attitudes about the learning experience.

III. Methods and Procedures

Description of Sample

Two groups of students will be used for the experiment as a comparison study. One group will perform the traditional hands-on laboratory of the dissection of the frog. The other group will perform the dissection of the frog via a simulation program. Samples will be taken from two freshman level biology classes. Freshman are typically between the age of 14 and 15. Students taking biology have already demonstrated competencies in science from 8th grade (having a B or better average in their science classes from middle school). Most will have had little or no experience with dissections prior to coming to high school. Solicitation for participation in the research will be obtained by mailing permission forms home to students’ parents. (See Appendix 2)

Data Collection
After comparing and reviewing various simulation software of the frog dissection, I chose the online free version found at This version was very similar to Digital Frog 2 but incurred no cost and had the additional advantage of being accessible by students from their home computers.

Group A will be the control group and will follow the procedures and curriculum guide pertaining to the dissection of the frog in a laboratory. Students in group A will work individually to dissect a preserved frog specimen, locate organs and identify their functions. Students in Group A will be instructed not to use supplemental materials such as software and online resources. Though the use of supplemental materials in addition to the laboratory procedures may indeed improve their overall learning, the purpose of the research is to determine only if a simulation can result in an equal or better learning experience than laboratory work alone. If students in group A were to also use a simulation to help them learn the frog, a comparison would be invalid.

Group B is the experimental group. They will follow the module at and work individually on computers in the math-science computer lab. These students will not be exposed to real specimens at all.

Qualitative Data Collection
Both groups will then be given a survey to collective qualitative data on their overall experience. Qualitative data is important to gather because the dissecting of the frog is a a holistic experience where students learn to use their senses and hand eye coordination to follow procedures that biologists use when investigating organ systems. This overall experience cannot be reflected and assessed by quantitative data alone.

Survey questions should reveal a pattern of beliefs, attitudes, and experiences of both test groups. The qualitative portion of the research should reveal characteristics of both experiences in relation to: discovery learning, investigation, intellectual independence, and development of a more holistic understanding. Since a frog dissection (either simulated or real) involves many aspects of scientific inquiry, it is important to discover if the simulation gives students the same overall experience as a hands-on lab. Students with low achievement on test scores may still have developed scientific skills in the process of the dissection, as would be revealed in a qualitative assessment of student attitudes and opinions.
The survey will consist of a set of statements where students choose from a continuum of responses: Strongly Agree, Somewhat Agree, Neutral, Somewhat Disagree, Strongly Disagree. Group A and Group B will receive the same survey questions with only a variance on whether the frog was a real frog or a “virtual frog”. The questions must be identical in order for the experiences to be compared. Finally, an open ended set of questions will be asked to compile students attitudes and experiences about the dissection.

Draft Survey Questions (see Appendix 1 for complete list)

1. The procedure I followed for the [virtual] frog dissection allowed me to explore the anatomy of the frog.
2. Dissecting the frog was easy.
3. I felt confident I was locating the correct structures on the frog.

Quantitative Data Collection

Students in both groups will be given a test after the completion of the dissection. The test will be used to assess their knowledge or organ systems and functions as well as their understanding of the placement of organs within the body cavity. Again the tests will be identical, so that a comparison can be made between groups performing a real dissection and a virtual dissection.

The test will be composed of multiple choice questions and contain images of frogs not used in class handouts or the on-line simulation. It is important that these pictures not have been viewed prior by either groups so that a true assessment of their understanding of the placement of organs can be determined, rather than a students ability to memorize a particular labeled image.

Sample Test Questions.

1. Which of the following organs connects directly to the frog’s stomach?
a. gall bladder b. small intestine c. large intestine d. bladder

2. Which of the following organs produces bile and digestive enzymes?
a. liver b. spleen c. large intestine d. lymph nodes

3. Which of the following organs is NOT part of the urogenital system?
a. cloaca b. ovary c. kidney d. spleen

Test scores from both groups will be statistically compared to determine the level of understanding achieved by both groups. Individual differences in ability will be taken into account by comparing overall means and item analysis of each question.
A pre test method will not work in this case, because students have had little or no exposure to the frog’s anatomy beforehand. Only final averages of a test completed after the unit will be compared.

Limitations of Study

As with any research study, the design is not without its imperfection. The quantitative data gathered from test scores does not take into account individual differences in aptitude. Though an overall average of test scores that compares one group to another can provide information about trends, the sample size may be too small to make large generalizations.

Another factor that may effect results is the degree of collaboration among students. Students in group A (lab group) may be more likely to discuss and compare their findings with other students, whereas students positioned at computer terminals working individually may not have the same opportunities to compare and collaborate with other students. Collaboration and discussion among students in group A may affect their overall learning. Though neither group of students will be instructed to not collaborate and discuss with other students, the classroom environment may be more “friendly” than the computer lab environment. In fact, the classroom sample will be required in some cases to view the frogs of other individuals in order to compare male and female anatomy, whereas the web version has both types located in the module.

Another factor not addressed in this research is students with special needs. Neither the frog module at or the curriculum guide for the laboratory dissection have addendums for students that may require special instructions, instruments or environments. Teachers often work specifically with students and special education teachers if a need arises for additional materials and resources.

The collection of qualitative data is also limited in that results can easily be misinterpreted. Students may not always answer accurately to the statements posed in the surveys and the survey may not cover all aspects of the students’ learning experience. A survey also fails to take into account qualitative data that could be gathered by observation of the students in the learning environment, where an observer could record details such as degree of communication and collaboration, and even expressions and moods of students performing the lesson.


Costs involved in conducting the research will be minimal and no greater than what a science laboratory budget already allows for the curriculum that includes dissections. Materials are already on hand, including the equipment necessary for the dissection (scalpels, pins, probes ..etc). Students will be able to access from the school server, and the service is free. Because the budget for this project is minimalistic, outside sources of funding will not be required.

Itemized list
Preserved frogs (30) - $60.00
Dissecting Kits - available
Computers and internet connection - available
Frog Dissection Lab Guides - available
Copies of Tests and Surveys - negligible


The results of the study will be shared with the science department head and with the school administrators, hopefully to be used in discussions on biology curriculum changes. In addition, the results will also be published in the school newsletter and on the school’s website.

The results of the study should be posted regardless of whether the hypothesis was supported or not. Students, parents, administrators, and other interested community members should be informed of the study’s conclusions so that the Board of Education can make informed decisions on curriculum changes and the adoption of software.


Illinois General Assembly. June 9th, 2000. Illinois Compiled Statutes. Schools. Dissection Alternatives Act. 105 ILCS 112. [ ]

Illinois State Board of Education.
Illinos Learning Standards.
[ ]
Barr, G. Herzog, H. Fetal Pig: The High School Dissection Experience. 2000. Society and Animals. Journal of Human Animal Studies. Vol 8, 1. Retrieved July 15th, 2002. [ ]

Battle, Tim. Cutting Out Dissection. Retrieved July 22nd, 2002. [ ]

Burkett, Ruth. To Dissect or Not to Dissect. April 9th, 2000. Retrieved July 15th, 2002. [ ]

Doster, Elizabeth C. Jackson, David F. Oliver, J.S. Crocket, Denise K. Emory, Allen L. Values, Dissection, and School Science: and Inquiry into Students’ Construction of Meaning. Retrieved July 22nd, 2002 [ ]

Leonard, W. Computer-Based Technology in college Science Laboratory Courses. April 1, 1989. Research Matters - to the Science Teacher. No. 8903. Retrieved July 15th, 2002. [ ]

Lewis, R. Fetal Pig Shortage Hamstrings Biology Instructors. The Scientist 13[3]:8, Feb. 01, 1999. Retrieved July 15th, 2002. [ ]

Lewis, R. Instructors Reconsider Dissection’s Role In Biology Classes. The Scientist 11[22]:13, Nov. 10, 1997. Retrieved July 13th, 2002. [ ]

Robertson, D, Johnston W, Nip, W. Virtual Frog Dissection: Interactive 3D Graphics via the Web. Retrieved July 16th, 2002 []

Ruzik, R. O’Connell, K. Virtual Reality/Simulations Report. National Center on Accessing the General Curriculum. Retrived July 15th, 2002. []

Velgos, Tina. The Digital Frog 2. Retrieved July 16th 2002 []

Watanabe, M. Biology Laboratories: Are They Disappearing?
The Scientist 16[11]:23, May. 27, 2002. Retrieved July 20th, 2002 [ ]


Appendix 1 - Student Survey

Instructions: Read the following statements and choose whether you agree or disagree to the statement being made based on your experience with the [virtual] frog dissection.

1. The procedure I followed for the [virtual] frog dissection allowed me to explore the anatomy of the frog.
Strongly Agree | Somewhat Agree | Neutral | Somewhat Disagree | Strongly Disagree

2. Dissecting the frog was easy.
Strongly Agree | Somewhat Agree | Neutral | Somewhat Disagree | Strongly Disagree

3. I felt confident I was locating the correct structures on the frog.
Strongly Agree | Somewhat Agree | Neutral | Somewhat Disagree | Strongly Disagree

4. I felt confident that after locating an organ, I knew what the purpose of the organ was and how it related to other organs.
Strongly Agree | Somewhat Agree | Neutral | Somewhat Disagree | Strongly Disagree

5. After the [ virtual ] dissection, I understood how organ systems are put together.
Strongly Agree | Somewhat Agree | Neutral | Somewhat Disagree | Strongly Disagree

6. I was bored during the dissection of the [virtual] frog.
Strongly Agree | Somewhat Agree | Neutral | Somewhat Disagree | Strongly Disagree

7. If I was unsure about an organ or structure, I could easily retrace my steps and do that section again.
Strongly Agree | Somewhat Agree | Neutral | Somewhat Disagree | Strongly Disagree

8. I needed more help from my teacher in locating and identifying structures.
Strongly Agree | Somewhat Agree | Neutral | Somewhat Disagree | Strongly Disagree

9. I was reluctant to make the cuts in my [ virtual ] frog.
Strongly Agree | Somewhat Agree | Neutral | Somewhat Disagree | Strongly Disagree

10. I found things I was not expecting to find on my [ virtual ] frog. (strange organs, deformities, eggs..etc)
Strongly Agree | Somewhat Agree | Neutral | Somewhat Disagree | Strongly Disagree

11. I was excited about the [ virtual ] frog dissection.
Strongly Agree | Somewhat Agree | Neutral | Somewhat Disagree | Strongly Disagree

12. Learning about the anatomy of a frog is an important part of biology class.
Strongly Agree | Somewhat Agree | Neutral | Somewhat Disagree | Strongly Disagree

Write a short paragraph responding to the following questions regarding the [ virtual ] frog dissection.

13. What is the most memorable experience about the [ virtual ] frog dissection?

14. What part of the [ virtual ] frog dissection did you like the least.

15. What part of the [ virtual ] frog dissection did you like the most.

Appendix 2 - Parent/ Guardian Consent Form

Research Project: An Investigation of Dissection Simulation Software
Research Coordinator: Shannan Muskopf
Phone number: 618-451-5808
email: [email protected]

Your child has been selected to participate in a research study to help determine the educational value of scientific software. The results of this research will be used by administration to assess software, technology and curriculum revisions. Participation in this research is voluntary and the results of the research will be confidential. Your signature on this form indicates that you have been informed and agree to your child’s participation.

Thank you again for allowing your child to participate in this research.  We believe that this research will be valuable in determining curriculum changes and aligning classroom objectives to state mandated goals.  
Please sign below to indicate that you have read the information provided and agree to allow your child to participate in the research project.
                                        Parent/Guardian’s Signature                                                                                Date                       
                                                Child’s Name