Every year, fifth graders dissect squids in Middle School Dean of Student Life and Science Teacher Laurice Hwang‘s Life Science class. It has become as much a rite of passage for fifth graders as their annual reenactment of an ancient Egyptian funeral procession in their Humanities classes.
“In Life Science, we ask what makes something alive? What makes a cell? We talk about animal evolution,” explained Laurice. The squid dissection is part of the unit on invertebrates. “My goal is to make kids understand animals. 95% of animals are invertebrates, but in so many science classes the focus is on cute, furry mammals.”
Laurice, now in her 17th year at BFS, didn’t arrive at the decision to dissect squids, or any animal at all, for that matter, on a whim. While sipping a cup of tea she had brewed herself in her fifth floor office at Pearl Street recently, she recalled her own traumatic childhood science class experiences . “When I was in middle school, we had to dissect frogs,” she lamented. “People threw parts at each other. The frog was hard and crunchy, and there was the smell of formaldehyde.” She was also troubled ethically that frogs, or any animals for that matter, were being raised just to be killed and preserved for dissection. The experience led her running screaming to vegetarianism.
A few years later in a high school science class, she was allowed to do an alternate assignment to demonstrate her understanding of earthworm anatomy without dissecting the real thing. She used transparent sheets and an overhead projector to depict the various organs. When laid on top of each other they created the earthworm’s entire anatomy.
Ironically, given her distaste for dissections, she was initially destined in her family for a career in medicine. “I was supposed to be a doctor. My father is a doctor. I was good at science. I was interested in being a doctor as a young kid.”
After the frog dissection, she chose a career in education. “I figured that being a science teacher, I could help raise the next generation of doctors.”
Later, as a student teacher in a science class, the students completed a unit on optics in which they had to dissect a cow’s eyeball. “I thought, ‘oh, no, not again!’ But it was actually a great experience,” she said. “There was no formaldehyde odor, no crunchiness.” She was also relieved to learn that the eyeballs were from cows who were already destined to be slaughtered for meat, rather than being raised purely for dissection. “No one was raising and killing cows just to get their eyeballs.”
As a teacher herself, she has opted for squid dissection. Why dissect anything at all in this day and age? “I think doing things with your hands, it helps you learn better.” The dissections, however, are done within certain parameters in keeping with her hopes that her students will avoid her own horrific middle school experiences. She won’t have her students dissect any animal that was raised just for dissection. She gets her squids from a seafood market in Chinatown.
Her students aren’t required to participate, and she spends much time leading class discussions on the pros and cons of dissection. “We talk about the fact that medical students dissect humans, but that these are people who’ve left their bodies to science. Animals don’t get that choice.”
The number of students who opt for dissection varies from year to year. Those who choose to participate must obtain written consent from their parents, who are also encouraged to discuss it with their child at home. Students who opt out of performing the dissections work instead with computer simulations or make clay models demonstrating their understanding of squid anatomy. Laurice recalled one student who performed the dissection but the process left its mark on her. Years later as an Upper School student, this same student made Laurice a stuffed squid that could be unzipped to reveal the anatomically correct organs.
She stresses that a common refrain from students at the end of the unit is, “I’m never eating calimari again! It’s an animal, it’s smart.”
“Before this, these city kids thought of squid as calamari; as something you eat.”
How about the teacher? Is she still a vegetarian? “I’m no longer a vegetarian. But I don’t eat squid.”
She sums up her philosophy: “If the dissection is going to make you appreciate life more, then do it. We don’t just study anatomy but squid behavior, how they communicate,” she said. “You walk away from this experience appreciating squid. You become aware of the different ways that humans and animals interact. As pets, as food.” And, of course, as lab experiments.
In true Friends school style, students write a reflection at the end of the unit. “We also make t-shirts,” she said. “Squids can come in any color. And they change color to communicate.” Students celebrate this fact in their widely varied, whimsical t-shirt designs.
The class isn’t all about dissecting squid, though. Throughout the school year, students also dissect a lima bean and a flower. “A dissection is to take something apart to learn from it,” said Laurice. “They also learn how to design a lab experiment, use metric measurement, learn how to use microscopes, and proper lab procedures. They realize the importance of having a control group when performing an experiment.”
Stressing her hands-on approach, she assigns pop mini-labs throughout the year. “I divide the students into groups and give each group 20 pieces of paper,” she said of one such project. “They have six minutes to build a tower as tall as they can. They learn teamwork, collaboration, and thinking on your feet.”
Middle School Science Teacher and Environmental Action Coordinator Janet Villas spoke effusively of her colleague Laurice’s work and has no qualms about lab dissections. “In seventh grade Life Science we dissect chicken wings because we see bones, muscles, tendons. It’s something that actually moves…We’ve gone to the butcher shop and asked for some pretty strange things,” she said with her usual wry humor.
Like Laurice, Janet trumpeted the importance of hands-on lab work in the Middle School, and the ongoing challenge of finding projects that will engage urban students’ passions. “In every grade we do lab science, and we have a double lab period in every grade. It allows us to work in depth every two weeks for 110 minutes.”
In Janet’s sixth grade class, “we go outside to explore motion. We compare the speed of roller blades to scooters and skate boards,” she said, emphasizing that for city kids, this can be useful and exciting information for them. “They try to figure it out in class first by looking at the variables: the size and configuration of the wheels, the distance between the wheels, will the number and size of the wheels matter?”
In the, er, field (make that a sidewalk), the students presumptions didn’t always play out. “Every time it came down to, the fewer and thinner the wheels, the faster,” said Janet. “The scooter won.” She leaned back and smiled. “I had a lot of fun with that.”
Then there’s Janet’s famed Mentos rocket experiment. “We try to figure out which type of soda would have the strongest reaction,” she said. “Sugar, not sugar? Which is making the Mento give off the highest geyser? Will the temperature of the liquid make the explosion bigger and better?”
How’d it go? “It was a total mess,” she said with a smile, “but in a good way. We used meter sticks and a team of student iPad videographers. We had more failures than successes, and we analyzed the videos frame by frame. Room temperature diet Pepsi won.” She added an important post-script. “The thing about lab science is, you learn from your failures more than from your successes. If it didn’t work, you have to go back and look at why. It’s not a canned lab where it’s going to turn out the same way every time.”
In another experiment, Janet and her students used Gummy Bears to study osmosis by placing some in distilled water, some in tap water, and some in salt water. “Would the difference in the fluids impact how much water was absorbed through the membrane? Overnight they all melted, so we tried it instead for an hour during the double-lab period and measured it then.”
In her eighth grade Earth Science class, one of Janet’s favorite labs is to take the students outside to measure the speed of the Earth’s rotation and chart the path of the sun across the sky. “We make a sundial and measure the speed and direction of the shadow,” she explained. “From that, we can extrapolate the speed and direction of the Earth. Then, we compare that to other fast things.” Is a plane faster than the Earth’s spinning, for example. “It depends on the plane, of course” she said. “A supersonic jet goes faster than the Earth’s rotation. That’s how we get places really fast.”
In keeping with her mission to use objects and ideas from the student’s urban setting, they also study chemical weathering in rocks; in particular, those used in construction. “We ask, which rock would make a better building material? What stone is best for countertops?”
The biggest Middle School science event, by far, is the annual eighth grade science fair. “They design and implement their own experiments,” said Janet. “That’s a big deal.” She then added with her usual humor, “If I had a dollar for every kid who make someone eat something they don’t want to eat…”
Science fair participants also learn presentation skills. “They must present their work, and their Powerpoints go online afterward for parents as a virtual science fair. It’s a month of work. And in a traditional science fair with cardboard posters and glue, it’s going in the recycling bin the next day. This way, you have a record of it.”
All Middle School grades also participate in a unit about which we have written much over the years, the oyster project that Janet leads once a year from a pier at Brooklyn Bridge Park. “That’s the luxury of having the double lab period. We have time to do things like participate in larger scale field work.”
Along with it all, as the school’s Environmental Action Coordinator Janet manages the Recycling Club, a Middle School organization that’s been going strong for many years. “There are twenty kids, and we do the entire Pearl Street building at 11am on Friday,” she explained. “The big prize for the member is, who gets to do the shredding,” she said with a laugh. “They have team captains and walkie-talkies. Whoever’s been doing it for the most years is declared ‘the generalissimo.’ This year, it’s seventh grader Eva C. Her brother Ellis, now in the Upper School, was also a recycling generalissimo, so it’s a family tradition.”
Overall, the Middle School science faculty’s shared mission is clear. “We’re in a city,” said Janet. “We have to adjust things to what might matter to the students. And we want to be able to do something in enough depth that it’s meaningful.”