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Case of the frogs that croaked: Dissection class is novel, controversial

May 23, 1997

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ The frogs are DOA in Christine Karlberg’s class. Her students’ task is to find out why they croaked.

Mrs. Karlberg tries to make frog dissection more interesting and educational for her students by placing the dead, preserved frogs in miniature ``crime scenes″ and assigning the seventh-graders to solve the whodunit. The approach has delighted students and offended animal-rights activists.

The frogs are posed in doll furniture and given toe tags. Stray hairs, fake blood, footprints, fingerprints and other evidence are left at the scene.

The late D. Frog, for example, was found dead in a bathtub. The erstwhile T. Tadpolian bought the farm in bed. A certain K.C. Amphibious had a stab wound inflicted by some pond scum.

At Hewes Middle School in Orange County last week, the student forensic sleuths were ribeted by the exercise.

``It was laying on its back and there were blood spatters on the wall,″ Robert Washington, 13, said of his frog. ``I was the criminalist.″

Robert said the frog had been done in by a teacher. ``She took a pencil and she stabbed it in the throat,″ he said. What was the first clue? ``We had pencil fibers and pencil erasings.″

No one at the school actually kills the frogs; the supplier delivers them dead, in formaldehyde. But Mrs. Karlberg dreams up the crime scenarios, and she and other teachers often take the fall for the murders.

Last year, for example, Lucas Payne’s frog supposedly succumbed in a bathtub.

``It was Mrs. Karlberg who drowned it,″ the 13-year-old said. Footprints, fingerprints and a few stray hairs gave Mrs. Karlberg away. ``She said she was with her husband,″ but her alibi didn’t hold up, Lucas said.

He added: ``We opened the frog up. There was a bunch of ovaries in there and a liver and stuff. That was real fun.″

About 800 students have taken part in the science exercise in the past three years, Principal Margaret Sepulveda said. Contrary to the student testimony, Mrs. Karlberg does not inflict wounds on the creatures, Ms. Sepulveda said.

Mrs. Karlberg did not return calls.

Ms. Sepulveda said the students are learning how to go through the steps of scientific problem-solving, including collecting data, keeping a log, forming a hypothesis, making observations and reaching a conclusion.

``It’s not a joke,″ she said. ``It’s a way to help students understand the scientific process.″

The exercise has raised eyebrows at animal rights organizations opposed to dissection.

``If you sort of make light of it ... it almost ridicules the exercise all the more,″ said Jonathan Balcombe, associate director for education in animal research issues at the Humane Society of the United States in Washington.

Robert’s mother, Erin Washington, said her son has never been so interested in science.

``He’s had a blast,″ said Mrs. Washington, a nurse. ``This has been the only time in the whole history of school he’s talked about science. ... He came home today and said that he was pretty sure he had gotten an `A’ on the test.″

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