Debates in Human Genetics

Bioethics: Tool for Portfolio and Performance Assessment

Dorothy J. Cox
1994 Woodrow Wilson Biology Institute


Debating in the biology classroom? Of course, and why not? Debates are a part of my biology classroom experience, as I hope it will become a part of yours. Different techniques of teaching biology, primarily to implement critical thinking skills, have become a part of everyday teaching. For the past two years I have also used portfolios as a tool for assessment, and used group projects as a means of performance assessment. In science, teachers have always used a form of performance assessment, primarily as a part of a lab grade, but I propose that we can also incorporate debate, mock trial, parody, and other alternate methods that allow the "non-science" person a chance to excel. With the implementation of these changes in the classroom, you become less a lecturer and more a facilitator to your students. Debates, mock trials, and other cooperative learning projects quickly become a part of your classroom.

Student Objectives:

  1. To discover - Learning is fun. Science is exciting.

  2. To learn to work in cooperative learning groups and develop organizational skills.

  3. To develop problem solving skills while developing writing skills.

  4. To empower the student with personal concept development and time management as each student assumes responsibility for his/her own learning.

  5. To document growth and success of the learner.

  6. To demonstrate the student's understanding of the concept taught as higher level thinking skills are developed, used, and enhanced.

Target Age/Ability Level:

Grade 7 Life Science - Grade 12 AP Biology

Student /Class Time Required:

Debate preparation, presentation, and evaluation last about one week and the results are well worth the effort. Preparation takes about two class periods. The actual class time for debates is one or two class periods.

Materials/ Groups:

Students will be placed in cooperative learning groups by the teacher. A reference list of possible articles may be supplied or the articles themselves supplied.

Teacher's Guide for Presentation of Activities:

Running debates in the classroom is relatively simple and requires few materials. First assign cooperative learning groups, giving each group the affirmative or negative position of a particular issue (premise). Six possible situations are listed for debate, but the students can supply one or two really good issues. Sample issues are:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Baby Doe was born with severe birth defects including an esophagus ending in a pouch and Down's Syndrome. The parents of Baby Doe decide to withhold feeding and medical treatments.
  • A husband decides 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 this request be granted?
  • 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, supply materials for research or have the students supply their own research for their debate.

After completing the debate, the students will write essays to complete the portfolio portion of their grades. The essay should include the premise debated, how debated, 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.

This activity can be used concurrently with the activities "Genetic Decision Making Model" by Harry H. Harmes, "Case Studies" by Sally Bishop, and "Hemophilia Case Study" by Kenny Vawter. Combining the activities personalizes and expands the learning experience.

References for Debates:

Fackelmann, K. A. October 30, 1993. "Researchers 'clone' a human embryo." Science News, vol. 144, p. 276.

Gold, Michael. Jan./Feb. 1981. "Pregnant pauses." Science 81 pp. 35-39.

"The Case of Nathaniel Wu." 1992. Mapping and Sequencing the Human Genome: Science, Ethics, and Public Policy. BSCS. American Medical Association. pp. 42-56.

Lyon, Jeff. January 1985. "Playing God in the nursery." (Excerpt) Redbook. vol. 164, pp. 112-114, 142.

Parakh, Jal S. and Irewin L. Slesnick. December 1988. "Difficult decisions: reproductive technologies." The Science Teacher. p. 20.

Salholz, Eloise. November 28, 1983. "Baby Doe's legal fate." Newsweek. pp. 84-85.

"Should we redefine parenthood? " Dec. 1988 The Science Teacher. p. 21.

Weil Jr., MD, William B. July 1984. "The Baby Doe decisions." Health. pp. 56-60.


The structured debate constitutes the performance assessment part of the student's total grade. The performance assessment provides fifty percent of the overall grade. The other fifty percent comes from their portfolio entries. The essays are graded holistically using a rubric which is based on the set of leading questions from which the students write their essays.

The students respond positively to this form of assessment. Very few are not totally immersed in the activity. Students seem to enjoy the science class more and are more involved in the actual learning process.

The grading rubric for the portfolio essay is given equal weight for the following criteria:

  1. research problem
  2. debate process
  3. debate results
  4. personal feelings
  5. methods of improvement
  6. favorite parts
  7. reasons to use debate
  8. suggestions for improvement
  9. another debate topic (extra credit)


A special thanks goes to Aleta Sullivan of Hattiesburg High School, Hattiesburg, MS and Sara Samples of Summerall Attendance Center, Hattiesburg, MS who shared their ideas of debating with me.

Student Sheet

Directions: Your group will be the team representing the Affirmative / Negative position for the premise (issue)______________________________________.

A list of references is available to help with your position. Choose one person for each of the three debate positions. Organize your materials and thoughts as you prepare to win the debate.

I. Debate Format for the Presentation

  1. 1 minute Affirmative (1st person of team)
    1 minute Negative (1st person of team)

  2. 30 seconds Affirmative (2nd person of team ) Planned Speeches
    30 seconds Negative (2nd person of team )

  3. 1 minute recess to prepare rebuttals

  4. 30 second Negative (3rd person of team ) True Rebuttals
    30 second Affirmative (3rd person of team)

II. Guidelines for Reflection in Essay for Portfolio

The student will use the following questions to reflect on the debate:

  1. What was your debate topic and what was your role in the debate (affirmative or negative)?
  2. Describe how you researched and set up your arguments for your debate.
  3. What was the actual debate process we used in the classroom?
  4. Did your side win or lose the debate, and why do you think this happened?
  5. What would you now do differently to revise your argument? Why?
  6. What about this debate was good?
  7. What were your personal feelings about your debate topic?
  8. What was your favorite part of our debates in the classroom? Explain your answer.
  9. Was there another debate topic about which you had strong feelings?
  10. How can you apply what you learned from the debate to your life or family today or in the future?
  11. What did you learn from the debates?
  12. Which issue made you think most deeply?
  13. Give me reasons why the teacher should use debates again as a part of the biology class.
  14. How can the teacher improve when using debate as a teaching tool?

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