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Home Education Magazine

January-February 1999 - Columns

Good Stuff - To Dissect Or Not To Dissect

Rebecca Rupp

My homeschool journals are stuffed with photographs. There are pictures of our three boys building toothpick bridges, inflating hot-air balloons, weaving Navajo-style headbands, making papier-mache Viking helmets, painting birdfeeders, planting beans, firing rockets, making clay models of the Parthenon, raising butterflies. And - a fat lump in the middle of Journal #3 - there's a whole stack of snapshots of the kids dissecting frogs. There they all are, engrossed, solemn - this is, after all, serious science - leaning over their homemade dissecting pans, scalpels and forceps in hand. Dissection projects are generally recommended for kids aged 12 and up, but our first frog dissection took place when Josh was nine, Ethan, eight, and Caleb, six - and all of them at the time found the process fascinating and learned a great deal from it about the inner workings of frogs. We continued to do further dissection projects over the years, eventually carving up earthworms, clams, starfish, fish, crayfish, a trio of enormous grasshoppers, a cow's eye, a sheep's heart, an assortment of owl pellets, and (Josh) a defunct mouse brought home by the cat. Somewhere along the line Ethan dropped out, announcing that dissection was not his cup of tea; in fact, said Ethan firmly, he could do without any more biology, thank you, and would like to turn his attention now to chemistry and physics, which he did.

In this attitude, he's not alone. Dissection, in more ways than one, is a tricky process. Some biology students find it distasteful; some find it morally suspect. For the interested, however, there are a number of sources for relevant projects and supplies. First on the list of necessities is a dissecting kit. The standard student dissecting kit contains a scalpel, a pair of small sharp scissors, a couple of dissecting needles (straight and curved), a handful of dissecting T pins for holding your specimen open and in place, and an eyedropper - plus (sometimes) a ruler and a small magnifying glass. None of this is exactly high-tech and it's possible to come up with equivalents from around the house and workshop (single-edged razor blades, darning needles, sewing scissors, and the like) that work fairly well. The professional instruments, on the other hand, generally are function better and are easier to hang onto. Look for sharp and sturdy, and don't buy plastic forceps. In our experience, it was best by far to have a complete kit for each kid, since everybody inevitably wanted/needed the same instruments at the same time. If you do have two or more dissectors sharing a single kit, however, the only really unshareable item is the pins for securing specimens; these are essential and you'll need enough for everybody. Most beginner's dissecting kits cost about $10 to $20. Sources for packaged dissecting kits and individual dissecting instruments include the Edmund Scientific Company, 101 East Gloucester Pike, Barrington, NJ 08007-1380; (800) 728-6999; fax (609) 547-3292; web site:; and Schoolmasters Science, 745 State Circle, Box 1941, Ann Arbor, MI 48106; (800) 521-2832; fax (800) 654-4321; web site:

Next on the list is a dissecting pan, in which the actual dissection is performed. The standard is a shallow aluminum pan, measuring about 11 x 7 inches, about half-filled with black paraffin wax - which is soft enough to jab pins into, for holding specimens while working, but hard enough so that the jabbed pins don't keep popping out at inconvenient moments. An alternative to the wax is a flexible pad that can be removed from the pan for cleaning. Commercial pans cost $8 to $20 each; sources include the Edmund Scientific Company and Schoolmasters Science (see above). We made our own, using aluminum-foil cake pans, supermarket paraffin, and food coloring, which combination works fine. (Note: paraffin is flammable. Melt it in a double-boiler.)

And - the feature presentation - you'll need specimens. Usual beginning dissection projects are the above-mentioned frog - a good first choice, since it's easy - the earthworm, clam, crayfish, starfish, fish (perch), and grasshopper (Lubber, very large). More advanced students ordinarily move on to the fetal pig, dogfish shark, and cat. Commercial dissecting specimens used to be routinely preserved in formaldehyde, which is volatile, nastily irritating, and toxic; most now are available in safer (and less smelly) alternatives, which are highly preferable. (Even with the alternative preservatives, scientific companies cautiously urge the use of protective gloves and safety goggles while handling.)

Specimens of all kinds, sold individually or in group sets, are available from the Edmund Scientific Company, Schoolmasters Science, or the Carolina Biological Supply Company, 2700 York Road, Burlington, NC 27215; (800) 334-5551; fax (800) 222-7112; web site: The Carolina Biological Supply Company (main catalog, $17.95) has an enormous and excellent selection of dissecting specimens and survey sets, dissection equipment, manuals, and instructional computer software and videos. The drawback: the company sells preserved specimens (and chemicals) only to schools and institutions. If you plan to order from them, make sure you are one. Schoolmasters Science sells an all-in-one dissection set: instrument kit, dissecting pan, manual, and six different specimens, all for $35.95; the Carolina Biological Supply Company sells an "Introduction to Dissection Kit," with instrument set, covered pan, student manual, and five specimens, for $25.95. The Wild Goose Company sells assorted dissecting instruments, cow and sheep eyes, and preserved worms; they also package a terrific experiment kit titled "The Eyes Have It," a creative series of experiments on the workings of the eye, culminating in the dissection of a cow eye. This is recommended for kids in grades 3-6 and costs $29.99. Order from The Wild Goose Company, 375 Whitney Ave., Salt Lake City, UT 84115; (800) 373-1498 or (801) 466-1172; fax (801) 466-1186; web site:

Finally you'll need a dissection manual, so you'll know how to cut, what to cut, and what you're looking at once you've cut. Commonly recommended is William Berman's How to Dissect (Prentice Hall, 1984), which covers 11 different dissection projects (earthworm, crayfish, grasshopper, clam, squid, starfish, dogfish shark, perch, frog, fetal pig, and gladiolus) in precise detail. The book is 223 pages long, illustrated with many labeled black-and-white diagrams. It's available from the scientific supply companies listed here or from bookstores. Carolina's "Science Books and Multimedia" catalog (free) carries a large selection of dissection manuals, including the Johns Hopkins Laboratory Dissection Series; for a catalog or specific book information, contact the Carolina Biological Supply Company, P.O. Box 6010, Burlington, NC 27216-6010; (800) 334-5551; fax (800) 222-7112. The catalog also carries computer software for young dissectors: the "Dissection Works" series includes step-by-step instructions for dissecting a frog, fetal pig, earthworm, perch, or crayfish on CD-ROM. Each CD-ROM is devoted to a single animal/specimen and includes an explanatory text, color photographs, printable labeled diagrams, schematics, and video clips of the dissection process. $59.95 each, Mac/Windows. Schoolmaster Science sells a series of small color-illustrated booklets describing individual dissection projects. There are 8 titles in the series, among them Dissection Guide to the Frog (16 pages) and Dissection Guide to the Earthworm (8 pages). The guides cost about $5 apiece.

For those who are interested in animal anatomy, but don't want to tackle dissection itself, there is an entire organization dedicated to promoting alternatives: The Ethical Science Education Coalition (ESEC), 167 Milk St., #423, Boston, MA 02109-4315; (617) 367-9143; web site: Among its publications is Beyond Dissection: A Sampling of Innovative Teaching Tools for Biology Education, a 62-page booklet that lists creative substitutes for dissections.

One popular dissection alternative is the biological coloring book. Lawrence Elson's The Zoology Coloring Book (HarperPerennial, 1982) is a very detailed 200+-page book for advanced colorers. Users label and color everything from the amoeba to the dissected earthworm (4 views), the dissected frog (9 views), and the dissected fetal pig (7 views). There are also numerous books that give young readers the crucial scoop on animal anatomy. The "What's Inside" series from Dorling Kindersley, targeted at 4- to 9-year-olds, uses a combination of peel-back illustrations and extensively labeled color photographs to show kids the inner workings of practically everything. Titles include What's Inside: Small Animals, What's Inside: Shells, and What's Inside: Insects. For an older audience, Dorling Kindersley publishes the 64-page Visual Dictionary of Animals (Deni Brown, 1991), a collection of double-page spreads picturing - in color photographs and heavily labeled color diagrams - the insides and outsides of a wide range of animals, among them the butterfly, the horse, the lion, and the bird. The X-Ray Picture Book of Amazing Animals by Gerald Legg (Franklin Watts, 1994) is filled with cutaway illustrations of some two dozen different animals, showing what's inside - for example - frogs, flies, killer whales, and prowling tigers. Steve Parker's The Beginner's Guide to Animal Autopsy is filled with information for young dissectors (or non-dissectors), with a creatively designed text and clever cartoon-style illustrations.

Should you try dissection projects? Maybe; maybe not. Depends, as always, on your children's interests and your family's scientific opinions. My opinion - as a scientist - is that coloring books and computer programs are workable, but weak, substitutes for real hands-on experience. Being shown - even in color photographs and video clips - can never begin to equal finding out for oneself.

G is for Googol

G is for Googol (Tricycle Press, 1998) is a math alphabet book by David Schwartz, author of such previous mathematical picture-book charmers as How Much is a Million? (Mulberry Books, 1993) and If You Made a Million (Mulberry Books, 1994). Googol, in 54 brightly illustrated pages, covers all things math from Abacus to Zillion. Included are historical background information, creative mathematical explanations, colorful diagrams and clever pictorial demonstrations, and lots of food for thought. C, for example, is for Cubit, an ancient unit of measurement based on the (variable) length of the human forearm. Readers, through an argumentative dialogue with Ahmos, a short-armed ancient Egyptian papermaker, learn about the history of measurement and the problems that arose in the days before standardization. E is for exponent, which concept is explained through yummy-looking drawings of jellybeans (2 jellybeans to the fourth power...): K is for Konigsberg, with an enchanting illustrating of the famous Konigsberg Bridge Problem and an explanation of topology, "the mathematics of wiggly lines." Every single letter is fascinating, from Binary to Mobius Strip to Probability to Y-axis - under which kids learn all about bar and line graphs with the help of a plodding green tortoise and a soundly sleeping hare.

W, a highly useful letter, stands for "When are we ever gonna use this stuff anyway?" Schwartz produces an intriguing array of examples from daily life, with appealing illustrations of "Things You Need Math to Make" (buildings, bridges, computers, calculators, roads, and Volkswagen beetles) and "Games That Use Math" (mankala, marbles, tic tac toe, and checkers).Informational, interesting, and adorable.

The Common Sense Spelling Book

Teresa Walker came upon the original of The Common Sense Spelling Book in a box of old books bought for a dollar at an estate auction in South Peacham, Vermont. Inside the front cover was written: "Anna Marian Walker, Age 8, Sept. 4, 1916." Anna Marian's speller is not only a fascinating slice of history, but it provides an academic approach to spelling seldom found in modern texts. "Most spelling books currently on the market," writes Walker, "neglect the combination of phonics, rule-based spelling, vocabulary development, and good literature."

The 1998 edition of The Common Sense Spelling Book is available in two parts, both in spiral-bound paperback. Part 1 is recommended for kids in grades 1 to 8; Part 2 for grades 9-12. Each has an accompanying Lesson Plans booklet, with suggested study schedule and brief supplementary readings and projects. The Lesson Plan booklets include the American Sign Language and Morse Code alphabets: Walker recommends using these, rather than repetitive writing exercises, to learn new words and reinforce spelling skills. ("Your student can tap his desk for Morse Code," writes Walker, whose children are clearly better behaved than mine. I recommend segregating tappers in widely separated rooms.)

A typical course of Common Sense study covers 35 short sections per year, starting in first grade, for a total of approximately 700 annual spelling words. Words lists are presented in related groups, either phonetically ("E as in men," "C as in ice") or thematically ("Words Used in My School," "Words Used by Carpenters," "Rocks, Minerals, and Gems"). Some of these are historically delightful: under "Fabrics Sold at the Dry Goods Store," for example, kids learn to spell baize, cambric, bunting, and gingham; under "Words Heard Going to Chicago," they learn porter, brakeman, crossties, and cinders; and the "Names of My Playmates" list includes such bygone favorites as Maud, Edna, Ethel, and Agnes.

The Common Sense Spelling Book is a straightforward and thorough approach to spelling, with additional emphasis on word derivatives, synonyms, grammar rules, dictionary usage, and syllabication. The offer of "good literature," however, is a definitely overstated. The spelling word lists are interspersed with short poetry selections, most of which are pretty insipid turn-of-the-century fare, despite the occasional Christina Rossetti or Robert Browning. If you're looking for literature, look elsewhere. If you're looking for historical experience, this is the real McCoy. This is how kids learned to spell in the age of the Titanic.

The Common Sense Spelling Book, Part 1 (grades 1-8) and 2 (grades 9-12), each cost $19.95; both books, $36.95; plus $4.00 shipping. California residents add 8.25% tax. Order from Republic Policy Institute Press, P.O. Box 789, Lancaster, CA 93584; (800) 244-7196; fax (805) 949-6788; web site:


The year is 1923; the place is Egypt's Valley of the Kings; and you - the players - are world-famous archaeologists, competing to recover 25 fabulous stolen "treasures of the pharaoh" and win a great prize: the concession for the Valley of the Kings for the next ten years. In this beautifully crafted board game, players set out to explore the Valley in the role of one of four archaeologists. Each player gets an "Expedition Record" with a brief biography and a photograph of his/her chosen character. Colonel Garret, for example, comes from Wyoming and was a cowboy and a Rough Rider under Roosevelt before plunging into archaeology.

Players set out from their base camps to explore four different tomb sites in search of stolen artifacts. This isn't easy: en route players are beset by sandstorms, Nile floods, thieves, false doors, snakes, heat, the machinations of rivals, and the ill will of Wadjet, the "Cobra Goddess of Buto", who guards the entrance to the pharaohs' tombs. They also have money troubles. All expeditions are funded by the Savings and Loan Co., which supplies each player with an initial $20,000. Archaeology, it quickly becomes apparent, is expensive work, and this goes fast.

To win, players must accumulate at least $40,000-worth of ancient treasures and correctly identify the mysterious 25th treasure, cunningly hidden within the "Rings of Infinity." (The treasures are real, all found by Howard Carter in King Tutankhamen's tomb.) Treasure acquisition is tricky and requires careful record-keeping on an "Expedition Log."

Wadjet instructions are somewhat convoluted, but all falls into place after the first game or so. A truly beautiful game for ancient Egypt lovers aged 10 and up. $59.95 from Timbuk II, Inc., Box 4495, Burlington, VT 05406-4495; (800) 863-9053; fax (802) 863-4097.

Harper's Weekly

Get your news of the Civil War, hot off the press, just as it arrived in the homes of subscribers across America in the years 1860 to 1865, presented in tabloid facsimile issues of Harper's Weekly, beginning with the November 10, 1860 Lincoln election issue. Each 16-page issue is an accurate historical reproduction, packed with editorial comment, news, political cartoons, jokes, illustrations, poetry and fiction, and a wonderful array of advertisements for such products as Dr. Brown's Patent Baby Tender, French's Celebrated Conical Washing Machine, and Genuine Cloth-Lined Paper Collars.

The initial issue includes accounts of the Lincoln election and of a recent Wall Street panic (possibly due to "fears aroused by the ferment in the Southern States"), an article on the Emperor of China, a heart-rending tale titled "The Iceberg," an essay by Thackeray on "True Gentlemen," news of the nation (including an obituary of Grizzly Adams), and news of the world, variously covering an assassination attempt in Spain, the revolution in Mexico, and the predicted retirement of Garibaldi. A terrific primary source for Civil War studies.

In 1860, Harper's Weekly cost five cents an issue. The price of an annual subscription today is $98 by mail or $49.95 by e-mail (52 weekly issues). Also available is a "Duration of the War" subscription, which includes weekly issues from 1860 to 1865; $395 by mail; $195 by e-mail. To order, contact Harper's Weekly, 128 The Great Road, Bedford, MA 01730; (800) 277-5312; fax (781) 271-0056; web site:

Our Federal Constitution, Our State Constitution

RJS Publications publishes a series of worktexts on the United States Constitution, on state constitutions in general, and on specific state constitutions. Each workbook is about 65 pages long, filled with clearly presented information, maps, fact boxes, word puzzles, and - after each short section - lists of review and discussion questions, vocabulary word quizzes, and suggestions for written reports. Our Federal and State Constitutions, for example, is divided into two major parts: a Federal Unit and a State Unit. The Federal Unit covers the American Revolution, the Articles of Confederation, the Constitutional Convention, and the Bill of Rights, summarizes the major provisions of the federal Constitution, including the three branches of the federal government and their functions, checks and balances, the United States flag, the process of amending the Constitution, and the federal budget and the national debt. The State Unit covers the branches of state and local governments, taxation and finance, political parties, and voting and elections.

State-specific editions - a sample title is Our Federal Constitution, Our Missouri Constitution - include a brief state history, a state map, a state government fact sheet, and an explanation of the provisions of the state constitution. Worktexts cost $6.00 each ($4.50 for 20 or more); Teacher's Guides, $6.00. Order from RJS Publications, 3784 Grouse Haven Road, Oregon, WI 53575; phone/fax (608) 455-1478.

Mars 2020

A board game in which players race to be the first to reach Mars, moving their playing pieces - an assortment of irresistible little gold and silver spaceships - along a colorful orbital path. As they proceed, players must answer questions in any of five different categories. The 550 questions are multiple choice, presented at two levels of difficulty. Sample Level 1 (easier) questions include: "Why don't planets twinkle as much as stars do when we look at them in the sky?" "What metal is the space shuttle's 'skin' made of?" and "What is a trajectory?" Sample Level 2 (harder) questions: "What was Isaac Newton's big breakthrough in the study of gravity?" "VLT is a type of deep space telescope. What does it stand for?" and "The zenith is a special imaginary point in the sky. To see it, where would you look?"

Players each take on the role of a mission crew member, choosing to be a pilot, engineer, scientist, or medical doctor; their career specialties may (or may not) help them cope with various mission malfunctions. The flight to Mars is far from trouble-free; airlock doors stick, oxygen tanks explode, fuel leaks, and the computer crashes. And Mars itself doesn't stay still. As the spaceships approach, Mars - represented by a big bright-red marble - also moves around its orbital path. Players must make sure their ships are properly positioned for a successful landing.

For 2 to 6 players, ages 8 and up. $30.00 from Aristoplay, Ltd. 450 S. Wagner Rd., Ann Arbor, MI 48103; (800) 634-7738; web site:

Tales from Shakespeare

Tales from Shakespeare by Marcia Williams (Candlewick, 1998) is a charmer and a delightful vehicle for introducing beginners to Shakespeare's plays. Williams presents seven plays - "Romeo and Juliet," "Hamlet," "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "Macbeth," "The Winter's Tale," "Julius Caesar," and "The Tempest" - all in enchantingly illustrated comic-strip style. Each play features a simple narrative text in boxes beneath the pictures, direct quotations from the plays delivered as dialogue, and humorous comments from the spectators. The Elizabethan theatre-goers form a brightly colored border around each page: the wealthy, in ruffs and plumes, sit in the galleries; the "groundlings," who paid a penny to watch the play, stand in the open theatre courtyard. There are rambunctious children and fiddling musicians, cats and chickens, beggars and jesters, fruit- and wine-sellers, lords, ladies, and peasants - and, if you look closely, even Queen Elizabeth I and Will Shakespeare himself.

The illustrations accompanying the plays are filled with engaging details: the Capulets wear yellow-striped stockings; Hamlet's father walks the battlements in a sweeping pale-gray cloak, accompanied by bats; Oberon has purple ears and a curly pointed beard, while Puck - a pudgy sprite in green polka-dots - is bald, with a red star on one cheek. Miranda and her father, Prospero, sit on a rainbow-colored beach, surrounded by pink crabs and blue sand-dollars. A lovely introduction to the Bard for readers aged 7 to 10.

1999, Becky Rupp

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