The "DL" on Dissection Labs

April 22, 2019

Teacher workshops are beneficial not only for the knowledge that is shared but the networking of professionals, as well. I recently attended a teacher workshop called “What’s that Squiggly Thing?” at the Infinity Science Center in Pearlington, Mississippi.

Taught by Melissa Wedel, the Education Programs Coordinator, Environmental Scientist and Staff Scientist at Infinity Science Center, the workshop focused on the basics of Microscopy and Dissection. Melissa had arranged for a high school group to come in for a dissection demonstration class, so we were able to see her in action and share in the wonderful teaching methods she uses. Melissa was also kind enough to author this month’s blog.

Tips for Facilitating Dissection Labs in the Classroom

by Melissa Wedel

It’s no secret that I love biology. During my freshman year of high school, I took biology, much like many high school students. Little did I know it would awaken a deep love of science and shape my career. My teacher, Mr. Zietlow, was an incredibly smart man. He was also an outstanding teacher who brought biology and science to life. It was in his classroom I learned all about dissection. I was fascinated and intrigued by what I learned. The knowledge gained there and throughout my college career is something I consider a gift. Knowledge is a gift and it must be stewarded on to others.

Working at INFINITY Science Center has been such an amazing experience for me. I get to share science with students, the public, and teachers! Every day as a teacher you come in contact with students whose minds are like a sponge. As we work with the students and allow them to participate in hands on investigative learning, we have no idea what discoveries our students will make in the future. Any one of them may find a cure for cancer, solve our renewable energy problem, or go on to make an astounding breakthrough in a STEM field. We are also ensuring that young people are aware of STEM careers and influencing them to investigate STEM careers.

My goal is to help teachers to feel more comfortable facilitating dissection labs. I’m going to share my tips for dissection classes, but they also apply to any science lab.

I’m saddened to see how many teachers are being given the support to feel confident in conducting labs, demos, and hands on experiences for their students. I believe most teachers would love to do more with their students but simply don’t feel comfortable or don’t know where to find adequate support.

Students need the hands-on practice and visual experience of labs in order to cement learning and expand their curiosity. Science concepts can be difficult to grasp without the reinforcement of lab experience. This means conducting labs, demonstrations, and having small exploration opportunities available in your classroom.

When I started teaching, I was told that there was a lab. When I unlocked the lab door and went in, I was shocked to find that it was basically used for storage and little else. There were lab tables and some equipment, but it hadn’t been used in a long time. The problem wasn’t that the school didn’t want the lab used, it was that they didn’t have anyone who was comfortable doing full labs.

After I left teaching, I taught privately, tutored, and helped other schools with their science labs, especially dissection labs. I found that teachers needed help and support in order to facilitate labs. Once I spent some time helping, they did really well at continuing on.

One of the best assurances I can give you is that if you provide these opportunities for your students, they will engage in science. Not just count the minutes until class is over.

Here is my recipe for running a dissection lab. It will translate to other labs also:

1. Make sure the lab is completely set up. You want to be sure that you do not have to divide your attention between things you missed setting up and teaching the lab.

2. Make it fun! We start every lab with lab safety and for that we use the lab llama. He has a stern look and his job is to enforce the lab rules. I tell students that if he comes to visit, they need to stop and think about what they need to do differently. This really helps when it comes to discipline. Rather than correction that can seem too stern or repetitive, they see it as fun and the llama is in plain sight as a reminder of the rule.

3. Dissection lab can upset some students. Make sure you plan for handling these problems ahead of time. I place a larger garbage can in the center of the room. I also stop students before we enter the lab. I tell them to grab a lab coat, find a stool and sit down, and please do not touch anything until you are given further instruction. I also add that they become scientists when they enter the lab and that scientists do not say "ewww" or "gross" . They say, “isn’t that interesting!” This is a tip I got from The Denver Museum and it really works! Once students are seated, I begin to discuss safety. I tell students that if they do not feel well, I need them to raise their hand and let me know. If they feel sick and cannot make it to the bathroom there is a garbage can but I’d rather they make it to the bathroom.  If they feel light-headed I do not want them to stand up and try to walk on their own. This helps you to be sure a student doesn’t fall or end up on the floor. I have never had a student throw up or pass out, but it is possible, so I plan for it. If the specimen genuinely upsets a student, I will not make them participate. You will need to differentiate between a truly emotionally upset student and a student who just doesn’t want to participate. I have only had 2 students who were too emotionally upset to participate in all the years I’ve taught dissection.

4. Make sure that you have detailed instructions for students and that you demo the steps for them and then with them as necessary. During dissection labs it is important that students do not just cut without purpose. This results in structures destroyed and the possibility that they cannot all be identified.

5. Encourage students through the dissection. Doing so helps to encourage them and make them feel as though they can handle dissection. Students can be very apprehensive about dissection labs for many reasons. Use this time to explain the relationship of structure and function. This is a great opportunity to really explain the concept “structure determines function”.

6. As the lab is nearing the end, ask each table of students to share something that they learned today with you. It may surprise you to see what concepts they learned during the lab.

Before starting dissection labs, it is helpful to have done some other labs that help get students interested in labs and demos. There are several that serve to “open” the year for the students in a way that keeps them interested and gets them excited about their science class. Here is one to get you started! It’s called wheat germ DNA extraction.

Melissa Wedel

Melissa Wedel earned her Bachelor of Science in Health Science from Purdue University Global, graduating Summa Cum Laude. Her undergraduate focus included extensive coursework in Anatomy & Physiology, Biology, Microbiology, Public Health, Environmental Science, Research Methods, and Epidemiology & Biostatistics. She is currently a graduate student at Benedictine University earning her Master of Public Health with a graduate certificate in Epidemiology and a graduate certificate in Health Management & Policy. Upon completion of her Master of Public Health she plans to pursue a Ph.D. in Epidemiology. She has taught advanced high school science and math as well as tutoring students in math and science. She is also experienced in writing biology and microbiology curriculum. She has a passion for research, especially in environmental science, and teaching and inspiring students in STEM fields. She also believes in citizen science to engage students and the public in science and environmental stewardship.

She currently works at INFINITY Science Center in Pearlington, MS. She is the Education Programs Coordinator for high school and college students, Environmental Scientist, and Staff Scientist.