It’s all about the eyes.

Jeanne and I both teach physical science, but for a couple days at the end of each year, we put our subject matter aside and give our students a chance to experience a dissection.  It is a lab that many students look forward to.  It is an exciting time.  And it is a perfect way to end our year.

Lance, my sweet autistic boy who is at my door by 7:45 am each morning with a wide grin on his face, says to me, “Ms. Nguyen, are we doing eyeballs today?” for two weeks straight. On the day of the big dissection, he’s extremely giggly and excited.  I go about my business of laying down the rules of the dissection, modeling to them what they will be doing, and explaining the procedures for clean-up.  During this time, I take out a package of eyeballs and place it under the Elmo, a document camera.  The bag of eyeballs, labeled “beef eyes” immediately appear on the screen and the students gasp in excitement and nervousness. “Ewwwwwwwww!”  “Oh my God, that’s disgusting!”  “Wow, that’s so cool!”  I stand back and laugh at their reaction. I try to calm the ones who are a bit anxious and look like they’re about to barf.

All of a sudden, I hear, “Ms. Nguyen, you said that we were going to dissect cow eyes.  That package says beef eyes.”  OK, so some of them don’t make the connection between cows and beef.

Another student says, “Ms. Nguyen, did they just pull out the eyes out of the cow for us?”  Oh, dear.  I explain that the eyes come from the steak that they may have had for dinner the night before or the burgers at McDonalds.  We have some pretty interesting discussions before the dissection gets underway.

I distribute the plates, dissection trays with tools, paper towels, gloves and goggles.  The students proceed to their respective lab tables and I instruct them to put on their gloves and goggles.  I walk around with a bucket of eyeballs and place an eyeball on each team’s dissection tray.  Many squirm and squeal while others cover their mouth and nose at the scent.  I instruct them to follow the protocol and encourage them to take it easy — one snippet at a time.  Many hesitate but a few dive in — telling their reader to read loudly so they can move forward with the dissection.

For the majority of the students, this is their first dissection.  I love experiencing firsts with students. I walk around to show them how to begin and point out some of the important structures.  As I approach Lance’s (my can’t-wait-to-dissect-cow-eye-boy) table, I don’t see him in sight.  I continue to walk closer to his table, my heart is beating a bit faster as I begin to panic.  Where could he be?  Did he go outside? Did the eyeballs put him over the edge? As I get closer, I see fingers gripping on the table and a head of black hair peering above the table.  Phew.  He’s alright, perhaps just a bit nervous. While his lab partners are busy working away at the dissection, Lance is hiding behind the table squealing and giggling at the same time.  Occasionally, I’d see his goggled eyes above the table, just long enough to get a quick peak.  He’s afraid to touch it but is totally fascinated.  At the end of the dissection, he tells me, “Ms. Nguyen, the cow eye was fun.”  (I’m bummed that I didn’t get a picture of Lance during the dissection.)

My students have all heard that the eyeballs squirt “eyeball juices” so they were especially careful during the dissection. As each group removes the fat and muscle tissue around the eye, exposing the sclera and optic nerve, I walk around to make the initial incision with the scalpel.  (Dissections make me extremely nervous so I don’t let the kids use scalpels.  They’re only given a pair of pointed scissors and tweezers.) As I make the incision, the students move far away from me for fear of getting squirted.  The few who don’t pay attention are often the ones who experience the wonderful spray of the aqueous humour.  Sometimes I make the initial cut in such a way that makes the stream of “juice” travel toward an unsuspecting victim.  I do this mainly to get a reaction — and boy, do I get a reaction!  It grosses them out but they love it!

On the second day of dissections, Karen, who had the pleasure of experiencing eye ball juice all over her the day before, warned everyone to stay away from me.  She told them that I could really make those eyeballs squirt.  Her advice: stay away from Ms. Nguyen or stay behind her to protect yourself.  Ha!  This cracked me up.

Dissections are pretty awesome.  It brings out new skills in students that I never knew existed.  Those who talked about the dissection all year chickened out when it came to the real deal.  Those who appeared disgusted by the whole idea of dissections, totally stepped it up and turned out to be great surgeons.  The patience and fine motor skills in some of my students are phenomenal.  I require each group to turn in a plate of eye parts — the plate must be clean with eye parts properly labeled and free of “eye juices” — and boy, those plates are clean.

A couple of students enjoyed the dissection so much that they asked their other teachers to let them come back to be my teaching assistants.  For the dissections that took place later in the day, I had great help which made the entire activity so much more enjoyable for me.

I love ending the year on a positive note.  I hope that I’ve turned some of these students onto science.  Even if they may not love love it as much as me, I hope that I’ve generated enough curiosity and enthusiasm that will make them want to explore science some more in high school.