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NSCS students learn with deer heart dissection

North Shore Community School 5th grader Cameron Nelson smiles as he touches a deer heart for the first time. Photo by Bob King.

Sam Cook

While dissection day is common in high schools, North Shore Community School has brought the activity to younger kids, teaching them biology through hands-on heart exploration.

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Fifth-grader Tori Osterlund’s called the activity nasty, but later retracted her statement.

“No. It’s not really nasty. It’s cool to see what’s in a heart,” Tori said.

The heart of a white-tailed deer lay on the cutting board in front of her, neatly sliced in half.

“This would be the left ventricle,” Tori said, jabbing a finger into one of the heart’s cavities. “And this is the right ventricle.”

The room was buzzing, as teacher Angela Wood’s fifth-graders, assisted by an adult volunteer, probed and poked and pawed at the hearts. Hunters — including Wood —had donated 22 deer hearts so the students could get a hands-on look at how a heart works.

Emma Gamache and Kade Long looked for a coronary artery. Across the room, Nina Kerby stuck a finger in a right atrium and wiggled it around, smiling broadly. Kade Long described how a deer heart felt.

“It’s squishy, and there’s lots of meat on it,” Kade said.

“It’s bloody and gory, but supercool to see how our heart works,” Ana Blomquist said.

Wood does the deer-heart dissection every year. This year, 41 fifth-graders took part. If some initially were squeamish, they got over it quickly, Wood said.

“These are hardy North Shore kids,” she said.

Finding enough deer hearts to dissect each fall is no problem, Wood said. Before Minnesota’s firearms deer season, she sends word home with her students and in a newsletter to parents.

“The hearts just start rolling in,” she said.

Wood, both a bow and rifle hunter herself, had enough hearts donated this year that each pair of students could work with one.

Deer hearts are nearly identical to human hearts, she explained, except that they’re bigger because deer are active much of the time, building the heart muscle. Before dissection day, the students learn about the heart in class, using photos and videos.

But there’s nothing like the real thing.

“At my old school, we didn’t get to do this,” said Sonia Clark. “We only had textbooks. I like that it’s hands-on. You learn more than reading out of a book. You get to touch all the valves and look at them up close.”

“It’s cool to look inside and see what’s inside of it,” Cameron Nelson said.

That’s the idea, Wood said.

“It really makes what we have learned with paper and pencil so real when they see it close-up,” she said.

Several moms and dads of Wood’s students pitched in to work with the kids on dissection day, along with Wood’s husband, Phil Wood.

“I think back to when I took science,” said volunteer and mom Jennifer Derrick. “You can talk all you want, but to see something …. I’m all about hands-on learning.”

It is this style of teaching that made Derrick want to bring her kids to North Shore Community School, she said.

“A lot of kids don’t get to do this until high school,” she said. “That’s why I switched our kids to this school. I’m so glad we switched.”

The heart study fits well into the science curriculum at North Shore, which is an environmental charter school, Wood said. One of the science curriculum questions for fifth-graders is, “How do we sustainably manage our natural resources?” In the fall, that question focuses on management of the deer population.

In addition to the heart dissection, the class visits a deer “exclosure” in the adjacent school forest, an area fenced off so that deer cannot browse the vegetation inside.

“We visually see the differences between the forest and the exclosure and the effect that deer can have on our environment, both positive and negative,” Wood said.

All of the exercises work together.

“By year’s end, students have a great understanding of the interconnection in our natural world,” she said.