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Dissection camp is a cut above the rest

By John Gibb

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Peyton Hughes had never dissected a specimen in his life.

That changed for the rising sixth-grader at Ashland Elementary in Ashland, Ky., when he picked up a scalpel Monday and sliced open an earthworm and starfish.

"This stuff is real cool," Peyton said as he was examining the digestive organs of the starfish. "I've never had the chance to do this before."

He was not the only one without dissection experience. In fact, eight of the nine area students who participated in the dissection camp had never examined the insides of a critter.

Mountwest Community and Technical College hosted the camp, and two more will be held later this summer. The camps last three days and are led by anatomy professors.  

Miranda Joseph, a rising 11th-grader from Kenova, finds dissecting exciting and had done it before as part of her home-school curriculum.

"I've dissected a bird before," she said. "I enjoy learning anatomy and consider each specimen I dissect a new opportunity to learn."

The group dissected earthworms and starfish on Monday. Earthworms are hermaphrodites that are tube-shaped and segmented. The earthworm has both male and female sex organs, meaning all earthworms can reproduce.

Students utilized diagrams to assist them with the internal dissection. Some students were shocked to find that an earthworm has multiple hearts and a gizzard.

"I think it's fascinating that earthworms have gizzards," Miranda said. "We all know that turkeys have them, but to find out a specimen not closely related to the bird family has one, it's quite interesting."

Starfish are echinoderms with tube feet and a stomach in the center of their rays, or arms. When eating, the stomach of the starfish comes out of the body and grabs on to its food. It is called suspension feeding.

The outer skin of the starfish is hard and rough while the inside matter is soft and has a consistency similar to caviar. Some of the students found larvae inside their specimen, meaning the starfish was breeding at the time of death.

Rae Stanley, a rising 11th-grader at Cabell Midland High School, said she was intrigued to learn about the anatomical features of both specimens.

"It is pretty cool to see what the insides of an earthworm and starfish look like," she said. "It's always good to learn new things, especially when it involves science."

Rae hopes to study molecular engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology upon graduation.

Adam Swolsky, a human anatomy and physiology instructor at Mountwest, said he was thrilled that the camp attracted such students. Swolsky attended such a camp when he was in the fifth grade and has since devoted his life to science.

"The response we received from students is fantastic," he said. "Nothing can replace the hands-on experience that is provided through this camp."

Nebraska Scientific provided the specimens. Grasshoppers and crayfish were dissected Tuesday. Feral pigs and rats are on today's schedule.

Additional camps begin next Monday and June 24. The sessions run from 9 a.m. to noon, and the cost is $100 per camper.

For additional information or to register, Erica Gilkerson can be contacted at 304-710-3427 or at  

Contact writer John C. Gibb at or 304-348-4872.

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