URBANA - Michelle Rodrigues believes in non-violence toward others, including animals, so when she was asked to dissect a frog and a rat in a biology class as a sophomore at the University of Illinois, she felt she couldn't do it.
Her instructor gave her the choice of watching her lab partner do the dissection or taking a deduction in her grade for the lab. She chose to take the deduction, which turned out to be exactly the difference between earning an A or a B in the class.
?I think a lot of times students are uncomfortable with (dissection), but because they are told there are no options, they go along with it,? said Rodrigues, a senior in psychology and ecology, ethology and evolution. ?It's not an easy choice to choose between your beliefs and your grade.?
Rodrigues and other students have been urging the UI to adopt a policy requiring alternatives to working on animals in lab courses, such as using computer models, so others won't face the same dilemma. On Monday, the UI's Urbana-Champaign Senate - a legislative body of faculty and students that deals with matters including educational policy - will hear a report on the issue that recommends alternatives be offered in some classes. Students say the UI will be the first major university in the country to consider a campus-wide policy on the issue.
?This is really important not only on this campus, but around the country. We're going to set an example for the entire academic community,? said Vilas Dhar, vice president of the student senate.
The use of animals in lab classes at the UI can range from a demonstration of handling livestock in an agriculture class to experiments on how a certain drug will affect the heart rate of a live, anesthetized animal to dissection.
Many universities including the UI have cut back considerably on their use of animals in undergraduate classes because of the high cost of the animals, stricter regulation on their use and recognition that students have legitimate concerns with dissection or vivisection (experimenting on live animals), said Neal Merchen, head of the Department of Animal Sciences. And several departments at the UI are in the process of coming up with their own policies for animal use.
Last fall, Illinois Student Government approved a resolution calling for instructors to give an alternative lesson plan to students who object to working on animals, without any adverse effect on the students' grades. Students say they are concerned about inconsistent responses from professors who are asked for alternatives.
The students acknowledge dissection is necessary for some classes and say they aren't trying to eliminate it. They say the issue is one of students' rights and having their beliefs respected.
Students ?don't want to kill animals for study, not squeamishness,? Dhar said.
The senate report says alternatives should be made available in courses that fulfill general education requirements and in lower-level courses that are prerequisites for degree programs that don't involve dissection in upper-level courses.
It also says alternatives should be made available generally if departments find it academically appropriate and economically feasible.
?We're pretty pleased with the language (that) says forthright that students have religious and ethical objections that need to be respected,? said Danielle Marino, president of Students Improving the Lives of Animals, which has led the effort for developing a policy on alternatives.
Marino said having notations in the timetable indicating whether courses include dissection or vivisection - another recommendation in the report - is important so students will be informed when they register for classes. She said her organization would like to see the policy cover all undergraduate courses, including upper-level courses.
?It's not like just because you're a senior, you don't have the same ethical beliefs you have as a junior,? she said.
But faculty members have reservations about a blanket requirement for alternatives even in lower-level courses. They say there is no good substitute to working on animals in certain classes, and they believe instructors should have the latitude to decide whether to provide an alternative.
?We're all for a campus-wide policy that says students should be informed ahead of time and if there are alternatives available,? said Fred Delcomyn, director of the School of Integrative Biology. ?I just don't want to see the educational quality of courses we offer to everybody to be negatively affected by a blanket policy that doesn't take into account circumstances where the kind of animal use we're talking about really is appropriate.?
?You have to look at the educational objectives of the lab,? agreed Philip Best, head of the Department of Molecular and Integrative Physiology. ?If it means gaining lab skills - using and manipulating tissues, using lab equipment appropriately, how to extract DNA or RNA - if the educational goal is to give students those skills, it's difficult to see how going through a computer exercise trains you for those skills.?
Merchen noted that use of animals in classes is already highly regulated. Any use of animals by UI professors must be approved by the UI's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, which considers the educational goals of the lab and whether they could be met using a non-animal alternative.
?I think for the most part reasonable guidelines already exist,? Merchen said.
Professors are also concerned whether their students will be adequately prepared for graduate school or jobs in a biotech industry lab if they have never worked with animal tissue.
But they agree most introductory or lower-level classes don't need to involve animal use.
?Our objection is to a blanket policy. Having said that, it's also true we believe most general education courses in the life sciences either should not have animal use at all or minimal use for which some alternative may be available,? Delcomyn said.
The senate won't vote on the report, but students say they hope to have it put to a vote in the future.
?This is something that needs to be binding so students' rights and their ethical beliefs are protected,? Marino said. ?We're going to continue to work on this issue with the university.?
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