Classroom Activity: exploring ethics

Don't be Nuts!

The Walnut Rat Brain dissection

with thanks to Gerd Banke, Biology Teacher Nayland College. Gerd picked up this gem from a science conference 5-6 years ago and developed this into an ethics activity and a way to tell plant cells from animal cells. Gaye Bloomfield recently adapted it to use with her psychology classes as part of an animal ethics unit.


Teaching resources that support this activity:

Harry Harlow Monkey Experiments: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OrNBEhzjg8I

The Fatal Swim Test: https://nzavs.org.nz/forced-swim-test/



Step 1: soak 2-3 walnuts in a bottle of red food colouring for 48 hours

Step 2: As part of a unit on brain functioning, discuss with class that you want to do a dissection of a rat brain to look at brain structure. (Do not reveal that you are using walnuts as a stand-in for a brain)

Step 3: Hold a structured class discussion about the merits and ethics of doing a dissection. Students who are very opposed should be quietly let in on the prank and encouraged to maintain their position. This discussion should not be rushed (allow 30 minutes).

Step 4: Help students divide themselves into active participants, observers and objectors. They can arrange themselves around the room accordingly.

Step 5: Bring the walnut brains into the room / into view.

Step 6:Use a scalpel to slice the walnut brains thinly and put onto a slide.

Step 7: View under a binocular microscope or handheld magnifying glass.

Step 8: After just a few minutes, reveal the prank.

Step 9: Take care to preserve the mana and integrity of all students so that those who took part in the 'dissection' do not feel they are 'in the wrong'.

Step 10: Ask students for feedback on the activity: Is this a good 'prank'? Does this help us think about ethics?


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