Proceedings of The Physiological Society

University of Cambridge (2008) Proc Physiol Soc 11, PC53

Poster Communications

Incisive observations: bringing back dissection for first-year science students

M. J. Mason1

1. Physiology, Development & Neuroscience, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom.


In November 2007, a new practical class was introduced into NST 1A Physiology of Organisms, the comparative physiology course on offer to first year Natural Science students at Cambridge. This involved the detailed dissection of a rat and a trout, a classical anatomy practical of a kind that has been missing from the Natural Science curriculum for some years. The animals were obtained as frozen corpses: the rats were ex-experimental animals from the Department of PDN, whereas the trout were by-products of local angling competitions. The students dissected either species (their choice), using a photographic dissection guide designed by the author as a PowerPoint presentation. The three-hour class focussed in particular on respiratory, cardiovascular and digestive systems. Among the suggested tasks, students dissecting the rat were encouraged to inflate the collapsed lungs using a syringe and inject the heart with white latex solution to show up the aortic arch; those dissecting the trout used latex injections to help them identify the afferent and efferent branchial arteries, and they also looked at the gill apparatus and swim-bladder. During the class, the students made sketches of their dissections, and answered simple questions about how the anatomy relates to the physiology that they had learned. There was initially some scepticism about whether Natural Science students (as opposed to veterinary/medical students) would be prepared to participate in a dissection class. In the event, we received no complaints at all about the use of animals: the students strongly approved of the “ethical” sourcing of specimens. About two-thirds of the class elected to dissect rats; the few students who were squeamish about dissecting mammals were happy to tackle the trout instead. Some even came back voluntarily to the next (repeat) class, to dissect the other species! The student feedback relating to our practical classes that term was the best that we have had for at least five years, with many students singling out the dissection class for special praise. At a time when fewer students have the opportunity to perform classical dissections at school, the inclusion of this inexpensive practical within a first-year University physiology course is particularly valuable in allowing students to see, in many cases for the first time, the structures and systems which they have been learning about.

Where applicable, experiments conform with Society ethical requirements