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Bioethics: Debates in Human Genetics

Aleta Sullivan



Abstract

Debating in the biology classroom? Of course, and why not? Debates have been a part of my biology classroom experience for several years, as I' sure they have been a part of yours. In science, teachers have always used a form of performance assessment, primarily as part of a lab grade, but I propose that we also incorporate debate, mock trial, parody, and other alternate methods that allow the "non-science" student a chance to excel. I admit I was once a lecturer; I am now a facilitator to my students. Debates in the classroom provide performance assessment opportunities for teachers and students. Bioethical decision-making is a perfect tool for debates in the classroom.

Target: High School Biology


Information for the Teacher

Activity 1: Student Debates

Running debates in the classroom is relatively simple and requires few materials. Simply assign cooperative learning groups giving each group the affirmative or negative of a particular premise. Debate preparation, presentation, and evaluation last about one week and the results are well worth the time investment. I generally have six premises prepared for the debate activity, but each year the students supply one or two really good premises. Some sample premises are listed below:

  • A couple has one son with Tay-Sachs. In their second pregnancy, prenatal diagnosis indicates that the fetus has Tay-Sachs. The parents choose to abort the fetus.

  • Two known carriers of Sickle Cell Anemia decide to have a child.

  • Nathaniel Wu should not be hired by IPC due to the presence of the Huntington's gene on his chromosome #4. (BSCS)

  • The parents of Baby Doe decide to withhold feeding and medical treatments.

  • A husband wishes to remove eggs from his wife's dying body to be fertilized by his sperm in vitro and then implanted into a surrogate mother. Should we allow this request?

  • The first cloning of a human embryo has recently occurred. Should the medical community allow the use of this technique?
  • Having assigned the groups their premises, I supply materials for research or have the students supply their own research for their debate. Preparation takes about two class periods.

    I use the standard debate format for the presentations. The format follows this outline:

    1.   1 minute     Affirmative   (1st person of team)
         1 minute     Negative      (1st person of team)
    
    2.   30 seconds   Affirmative   (2nd person of team)
         30 seconds   Negative      (2nd person of team)
    
    3.   1 minute recess to prepare rebuttals
    
    4.   30 seconds   Negative      (3rd person of team)
         30 seconds   Affirmative   (3rd person of team)
    

    The actual class time for debates is one or two class periods. the structured debate constitutes the performance assessment part of their total grade. The performance assessment provides 50% of the overall grade. The other 50% comes from their portfolio entries.


    Activity 2: Student Portfolios

    The students write essays to supply the portfolio part of their grade. the essay must include the process used in debate, the outcome of the debate in the classroom, their personal feelings on the debated topic, and their overall feelings about using debate as a learning tool. I grade each essay holistically using a rubric, which in turn is based on a set of leading questions from which the students form their essays. A sample could be:

    What was your debate topic and what was your role in the debate (affirmative or negative)?

    Describe how you researched and set up your arguments for your debate.

    What was the actual debate process we used in the classroom?

    Did your side win or lose the debate, and why do you think this happened?

    What were your personal feelings on your debate topic?

    What was your favorite part of the debates in our classroom? Explain your answer.

    Was there a particular debate topic about which you have strong feelings?

    Give name reasons why i should continue using debate as a teaching tool.

    Grading Rubric:

    1. research process         3       
    2. debate process           3
    3. debate results           3
    4. personal feelings        3
    5. favorite parts           3
    6. another debate topic     3 extra points
    7. reasons to use debate    3
    
                                3
                    
                           21 + 3 extra
    

    Grading scale:

    number of points           grade       
    20-21                       50
    18-20                       45
    15-17                       40
    11-14                       30
     5-10                       20 
     0-4                        10
    

    The portfolios constitute the remaining 50% of the student's grade, and when added to the performance assessment, gives the students his or her score on the total project. The students respond to this form of assessment, so much that I centered an ecology mini-course around performance/portfolio assessment. The involvement required of the students eliminated discipline problems. Very few were not totally immersed in the activity--one peer observing the process made the statement that she did not see a single child off task during the debates. That is an accomplishment as the students I teach do not necessarily chose to further their education after high school.

    Using debates, mock trials, writing songs, and other alternative teaching methods are quickly becoming a habit for me. I am enjoying myself more in the classroom, and that feeling is reflected, hopefully, in my students.


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