While it’s true that many students can learn biology without it, dissection can be a valuable addition to a biology curriculum.
As well as providing a deeper glimpse into the world of actual biology lab work, they can provide a valuable hands-on component to an otherwise largely visual and memorization based subject.
For homeschoolers that are comfortable with it, the question becomes how to easily and safely recreate a dissection lab for their own life sciences curriculum. Luckily, in recent years a large number of lab companies have made their dissection kits available for homeschoolers.
So many, in fact, that it can be hard to choose the right one.
To help out, we’ve put together a list of high quality dissection kits we’ve found, some ideas of what to look for and some alternatives for those who would prefer not to use an actual animal.
Before We Begin: A Note On Dissection and Learning
While dissection is a tradition in life science and biology study at the elementary, middle and high school level, and while it can offer tangible benefits to science learning, it is important to remember that not every student is comfortable or willing to do it.
And that’s ok.
Dissection does involve using real animal specimens and it is important to respect that and respect the fact that some students will have strong feelings about, or even moral objections to, dissection.
It’s important not to force students to do something they don’t want to do for the sake of learning as there are alternatives to animal dissection kits (some we’ve included below) and there are a great many curricula out there that replace dissection with other activities.
What Should A Basic Dissection Kit Contain?
Dissection kits can vary a great deal based on factors such as price, the intended learning outcome, the specimen, the target age, and so on.
In general, however, we believe a kit should contain the following items:
In order to properly dissect and study a specimen, students will need proper tools.
For K-12 learning, at the very least these should include dissecting scissors, forceps/tweezers, a scalpel, and a curved or straight needle for pinning things down or open. Generally speaking these each have their own particular use:
|Scalpel||For making initial cuts or incisions|
|Scissors||For cutting through muscle, light bone and tissue, exposing/removing organs|
|Forceps/tweezers||For fine tissue handling|
|Pipet||For removing any small debris|
|Needle||For delicate separation and tissue manipulation|
That said, the exact tools you will need in a dissection kit depend heavily on the specimen involved.
More specifically focused kits, such as those that examine only one organ, may only need more limited tools. If the specimen is a brain, for example, you wouldn’t really need pins since there’s no skin to hold open.
In terms of quality, with the exception of the pipet, which is typically glass or plastic, and perhaps the forceps or tweezers, which can be made of plastic, most items in the dissection kit should be made of good quality stainless steel.
Stainless steel dissection tools are durable, easily cleaned with soap and water and won’t easily rust over time.
Lab Manual or Guide
A good quality dissection kit should come with a guide containing relevant and specific step-by-step instructions for the dissection exercise, as well as labelled photos or diagrams outlining and identifying key points of study for that specific specimen.
The specimen is the heart of the dissection kit, being that which the lab lesson will revolve around.
The type of specimen depends largely on the lesson plans involved.
A full unit on mammalian systems, for example, may require exploring a fetal pig, which allows for a complete study of organs and systems in situ.
Those interested in a unit on the brain, on the other hand, would be better served by a sheep’s brain kit, which would provide ready access without having to do too much work.
There are kits that contain multiple specimens in one package. These are generally better for homeschools that are following a full curriculum in biology with many labs involving a variety of lessons in vertebrate and invertebrate physiology.
Those looking to supplement their biology teaching with the occasional lab, or who are uncertain of how their students may feel about it, may be better served with a single specimen kit.
Regardless of what kit they purchase, parents should make sure that specimens are well preserved. Generally speaking, specimens should come, at a minimum, in vacuum-sealed, triple-layered plastic bags (ideally one specimen per bag) to prevent leakage and decay.
Dissection Kits: Our Top Picks
Frog Dissection Kit
Our Pick: Homeschool Science Tools Frog Dissection Kit
The frog dissection is a classic part of biology class, and for good reason. When it comes to examining the organ systems of complex organisms, for example, a frog’s internal organs are laid out quite similarly to a human’s and can be a great introduction for students when exploring how their own bodies work.
Similarly, as ancient amphibians, they have several unusual body structures (like their tongue) that can be explored to demonstrate how they’ve adapted and live within their ecosystems.
HomeScience Tools offers an excellent dissection kit for would-be amphibian anatomists.
It comes with a thorough and informative dissection guide that helpfully comes complete with full-color photos and informative labels. You also get a very high-quality tool set including a broad-blade scalpel, plastic forceps, a variety of pins to help identify organs and structures and a set of sturdy scissors.
Most importantly, you get a frog to dissect- an extra large grass frog, to be precise, whose larger size can really help when looking for smaller structures.
Helpfully, the company double-injects the frog to make it easier to find the veins and arteries for study. The double injection lets them appear in different colors, which both makes them stand out and helps students in telling them apart.
Overall, this frog kit is a great way to start students on dissections, and spark their interest in the life sciences.
Fetal Pig Dissection Kit
Our Pick: Carolina Pig Dissection Student Kit
If you want your student to learn more about mammalian anatomy and biology, dissecting a fetal pig can be a highly valuable lab component to add to your lessons.
Aside from being a lot larger and easier to examine than other dissection specimens, in terms of the most important major structures, a fetal pig’s internal anatomy is remarkably similar to a humans.
Overall, we believe Carolina’s Fetal Pig kit to be the best all-around pig dissection kit.
Their fetal pig kit comes with a pretty high quality set of tools designed for K-12 use, including scalpel, scissors, forceps, pins, pipet, teasing needles and even a ruler. In addition, they helpfully include safety gear, including rubber gloves and protective glasses.
To help guide things along, Carolina includes a student dissection manual. These manuals are pretty thorough and include labelled drawings, detailed anatomical illustrations, essential dissection instructions, as well as ideas for further exploration and learning.
Carolina’s fetal pig specimen is fairly large and easy to examine at 11-14” and is double injected, marking veins and arteries in blue and red, which makes them easy to see and identify.
Interestingly, Carolina uses a particular preserving agent of its own, called Perfect Solution, which replaces the more irritating, harsh and sometimes dangerous chemicals used by some other companies with a less odorous and nontoxic fixative that we found tends to keep the specimen a bit more natural looking and easy to examine.
All in all, if you’re looking for a high quality fetal pig specimen to add to your life science curriculum, Carolina’s fetal pig kit is remarkably complete, providing parents with the high-quality materials and specimens needed to perform a comprehensive and educational dissection lab.
Sheep’s Brain Dissection Kit
Our Pick: Carolina Advanced Brain Dissection Student Kit
If you are interested in adding a unit about the brain to your biology curriculum, one of the best ways to do so with dissection is by using a sheep’s brain.
In general, a sheep’s brain is compact enough to be practical but still reasonably close to a human brain to be highly informative, and by providing a ready to use, preserved brain (without the need to go through a skull), a sheep’s brain dissection kit is usually the way to go.
One of the best examples out there that we found is Carolina’s Advanced Brain Dissection Kit.
Unlike many other brain dissection kits that only provide a few dissection tools for this soft organ, Carolina includes a pretty complete student dissection set that includes a scalpel, scissors, forceps, pins, pipet, teasing needles as well as a ruler, most of which can probably be reused for later experiments.
These kits also include gloves and safety glasses, as well as Carolina’s typically in-depth dissection guide, which includes high quality illustrations, labelled diagrams, dissection instructions and questions for further exploration.
In terms of the specimen itself, these sheep brains are well preserved in Carolina’s nontoxic and less odorous Perfect Solution fixative, which also helps the specimen keep a more natural color, making it easier to examine.
In addition, unlike some other sheep brains out there, Carolina preserves the dura mater, which allows for a more complete and deeper examination of the brain, letting students examine the meninges of the brain as well as its internal anatomy.
All in all, with its comprehensive materials and more structurally complete specimens, Carolina’s Advanced Brain Dissection Student Kit is a great way to introduce students to the wonders of the brain.
All In One Home Dissection Kit
Our Pick: Homeschool Science Tools Advanced Dissection Kit
If you’re set on integrating a full suite of dissection labs throughout the year into your homeschool biology curriculum, it may be worthwhile to consider an all-in-one dissection kit.
Put simply, these are more expansive kits that include multiple specimens. Although the specimens tend to be a little smaller than in individual kits, largely for shipping reasons, they can be a good bargain as they are designed to be used in different biology or life science units and lessons.
As an all-in-one solution, we recommend Homeschool Science Tools’ Advanced Dissection Kit. We found it to be one of the most complete dissection kits available and can suit just about any school life science and biology curriculum.
It includes a versatile and reusable dissection toolset with seventeen durably-built tools, including scalpels with interchangeable blades, scissors, needles, forceps and even a solid plastic tool case, as well as nine specimens, from earthworms and starfish to frogs and fetal pigs, that essentially cover the full spectrum of standard lab activities at this level.
Rather than providing individual guides, the kit comes with a full 200+ page book on dissection (William Berman’s How to Dissect).
This book has been a classic in K-12 biology labs for decades, covering a wide variety of dissections in pretty good depth, providing clear illustrations, step by step instructions and even ideas for further projects.
Overall, if you’re looking for a one-kit solution for your homeschool biology curriculum, with a wide variety of specimens to fit a full years worth of labs, as well as high quality tools and guides to enable exploration and learning, Homeschool Science Tools Advanced Dissection Kit is our top recommendation.
Alternatives To Animal Dissection
At the end of the day, dissection just may not be for every student or homeschooling family.
While dissection can be a very valuable learning tool, and is often an important component in real life professional labs, they do involve real, deceased animal bodies.
Many students may feel uncomfortable or object to their use on moral grounds.
Overall, there is an extremely fierce debate on the matter and we feel the answer is really a personal choice and we will refrain from weighing in on the matter.
That said, rather than trying to argue against these feelings, as educators we feel strong feelings about the matter should be respected, as at the K-12 level dissection serves to supplement life science learning, and isn’t really itself the center of it.
As such we’ve provided a list of alternative dissection kits that we feel can give students a highly valuable learning experience.
Top Secret Toys Dissect-It Simulated Synthetic Lab Dissection STEM Toy
Top Secret’s Dissect It Frog is an interesting and relatively inexpensive, animal-friendly alternative for young students.
This realistic frog is made out of an odorless, nontoxic and child-safe gel that is odorless and harmless. Each Dissect It Frog model contains a complete and accurate semi-transparent body, skeleton and organs, placed as they would be in an actual specimen.
The kit also comes with a few gel refill kits, so unlike a specimen you can reuse it with different students or redo the dissection if it goes wrong.
The kit also contains instructions and an essential “dissection guide” which discusses the anatomy of a frog and the functions of its different organs.
One thing to be aware of is the mess factor. Dissecting an all-gel body is not always a very tidy experience, as bits of gel and liquid can get loose. We would recommend laying down some paper or a sheet before getting started, and be ready with some wet wipes just in case.
All in all, however, if you have a young student and are interested in a frog dissection lab but are not willing to use an actual frog specimen, Top Secret’s Dissect It Frog can be an excellent dissection kit. It’s aimed at a younger audience than most kits (ages six and up) and is a good way to introduce younger science fans to the world of biology.
Owl Pellet Dissection Kit from Carolina
Owl pellet dissection is a great way to get kids interested in life sciences while making use of the natural by-products of an animal, rather than an animal per se.
Appropriate for kids of all ages, as part of an owl pellet module students can learn all about owls, their ecosystem, their diets, and even examine the anatomy of any bones (sometimes whole skeletons) found in the pellets.
Additionally, since owl pellets are fairly dry, there really isn’t an issue with smell or mess with these kits.
One downside is that, by their nature, the contents of owl pellets are unpredictable. Sometimes a pellet can include a complete mouse skeleton that can be reassembled, while other times there may just be a few fragments of bone and fur. That said, this variation in diet itself can be woven into a larger study of owl ecosystems and habitats.
We recommend Carolina’s Owl Pellet Dissection Mini-Kit due to its completeness as an educational dissection kit.
It comes with everything a student needs to dissect the pellet neatly and carefully: wooden probes, plastic forceps, a magnifying glass and tray for keeping owl leavings off of your home table as much as possible.
Carolina also includes instructions for dissection, as well as a bone chart, a rat skeleton chart and a student activity sheet with activities, questions and ideas for future discussion.
Overall, while it may not include a full animal specimen, owl pellet dissection can be an interesting addition to a biology curriculum, and Carolina’s Owl Pellet Dissection Mini-Kit offers parents an easy, organized, inexpensive and complete way of doing so at home.
Scienstructable 3D Dissection Model of A Fetal Pig
If you are interested in exploring mammalian systems through dissection but don’t want to use an actual fetal pig, Scienstructable offers a rather unique alternative with their 3D Dissection models.
Each kit consists of a series of printouts and instructions that can be used to assemble a three-dimensional paper model of a fetal pig. Students and parents can print out the sheets, cut out the individual organs, color them, and then assemble them to create a paper 3D specimen model.
Once assembled, the model is anatomically accurate, and can be a great way to examine the anatomy and organs of a fetal pig without having to have a pig on hand.
In addition to their paper model, Scienstructable adds to the learning by including a lot of educational resources with every dissection kit. Each comes with PowerPoints containing dissection instructions and notes, as well as various PDF printables, including guided reading that examines the various organs on display, questions and answers and a dissection template.
All in all, Scienstructable’s fetal pig offers an educational experience that can replicate most normal pig dissections through printables. The kits are also affordable, mess-free, reusable and include a variety of extra learning materials that we feel make them an excellent resource.
How Dissection Labs Can Complement Life Science and Biology Learning
While students can certainly read about animal physiology in their textbooks and watch videos about how various systems work, both specimen and alternative dissection kits can offer a rare opportunity for genuine hands-on biology learning that can enhance learning in many ways.
For one thing, students tend to pay more attention when there’s something tangible and unusual in front of them (whether a dissectible model or animal specimen). By getting excited and curious about what they’re learning, students tend to pay more attention which leads to greater recall and better retention overall.
Also, by providing students with a real tactile learning experience, as well as engaging other sensory pathways in learning, they make biology learning into a multisensory experience, which in turn makes learning more memorable and engaging.
Similarly, dissection can help students hone their observational skills, challenging them to find and identify different organs and systems in situ, as well as notice similarities and differences with their own bodies.
Finally, with a dissection kit students can feel like they are actually “doing science,” rather than just reading about it. By using actual specialized tools and lab materials, as well as donning gloves and goggles, kids can really get a sense of what it’s like to explore a subject as a scientist, at least for a short while.
How To Integrate Dissection Into Lesson Plans
Integrating dissection into your homeschool life science or biology learning can be a bit tricky sometimes.
If you are following a more structured and scripted curriculum, it may have particular lesson plans or labs designed around dissection, outlining the specimen, key learning objectives, vocabulary, instructional activities and so on.
If you are following a less structured or are building your own curriculum, however, you may have to do this yourself. Here are a few tips to help you and your junior scientist get the most out of their learning.
Choose a specimen, or specimens, to fit desired learning outcomes
Whether it is a frog, an earthworm, owl pellets, a sheep’s brain or a fetal pig (or replicas thereof), different specimens tend to be used in labs for specific reasons.
A frog, for example, is often used as a first exploration of essential organs and systems, as they’re inexpensive, small, relatively abundant and tend to share many of the same basic organs as humans, which makes learning very easy to connect and relate to younger students.
A fetal pig, on the other hand, is often used for a deeper dive later, particularly with the study of physiological systems and processes, as they are mammals, their larger bodies are easier to work with, and the major organs can be quite similar to humans.
In the end, the dissection specimen you choose should logically correspond to the module or lessons that you’re currently teaching.
Set up specific learning goals and outcomes
The purpose of a dissection isn’t to simply start cutting into a specimen for the sake of it.
Each dissection lab should have specific and clearly outlined learning objectives that students should get out of their work.
These can be things like identifying anatomy and its placement, understanding systems as they relate to each other, understanding certain structures and how they relate to the environment or adaptation, etc.
By clearly stating what is expected from each dissection, it can help keep learning more organized and on track and will make the most out of each dissection kit.
Watch Videos of Dissections Before Beginning
Good quality dissection kits should come with clear, step by step instructions for performing a dissection, as well as labelled diagrams and illustrations pointing out what to look for.
That said, we feel it is often still useful to watch a professional perform a dissection before trying it at home. These can easily be found on YouTube or online, with many produced by experienced science teachers and other educational professionals.
A video demonstration can help students clarify ahead of time what they will need to do in a low-pressure way, helping them better visualize the task at hand.
It can also give students a clear idea of what to expect. It’s one thing to look at illustrations of a fetal pig, and quite another to dissect it yourself.
Summarizing and Testing Knowledge Afterwards
For students, a dissection can be a lot to take in. Even in simple dissections students will have looked at a variety of things and performed a number of actions that will often be very new and possibly linked to strong emotions.
As a result, once the specimen is put away or disposed of, it can be very helpful to spend some time afterwards going over what they’ve learned and summarizing at least the key points in a more calm environment.
Similarly, it can be a good idea to build in some questions or quizzes at the end of the dissection lab. Assessment can help reinforce learning, and knowing that they will be tested on material can incentivize students to pay closer attention when dissecting in the first place.
Including dissection in a biology or life sciences course is a sometimes difficult and controversial decision for homeschoolers that is best left to an informed individual choice.
For those who do include a dissection, whether of an actual specimen or an animal-friendly alternative, its multisensory and hands-on nature can add a great deal to a typical curriculum and can make learning more engaging and meaningful for students, even improving retention in the long run.
A good dissection kit should facilitate this learning as much as possible, providing the preserved specimens or alternative materials needed, the tools necessary and the information required to make your life sciences lab as easy and beneficial as possible.
About the Author
David Belenky is a freelance writer, former science and math tutor and a tech enthusiast. When he’s not writing about educational tech, he likes to chill out with his family and dog at home.