Thursday, January 12, 2017

Genetic editing; formal debates

In December, the 7-8s spent two weeks preparing for formal debates on two related, yet different topics: genetic editing of mosquitoes (in order to reduce the spread of disease) and genetic editing of salmon (in order to increase the rate of growth). Students were placed onto a team of three people (proposition or opposition) for one of the two topics.

This debate was part of a larger unit of study in ELA and science that asked students to "think like scientists" in order to turn data into evidence by using it to make a claim. In thinking this way, Lisa and I forced students to abandon their own views on various topics (ranging from climate change to genetically modified organisms) in order to develop sound arguments. This is not to say that we do not want them to form their own views on these topics (we absolutely do). However, in this case, we instructed them to suspend their own ideas in order to work through the process of developing an argument using data and research. In several cases, this thought exercise forced students to argue a view that contradicted their own previously held idea, resulting in a broader understanding of and appreciation for diverse perspectives.

In science, in order to support this research, Lisa taught students about DNA and the ways in which scientists are using new methods to "edit" organisms' genetic makeup.

Concurrently, students were also deep into Nancy Farmer's House of the Scorpion, an award-winning science fiction novel about biotechnology, bioethics, and cloning. Thinking about the possible future of genetic modification (even in a fictional world) gave students a larger sense of possible implications of these decisions and forced them to think through their arguments on a deeper level.

As part of our preparation for the debate, students generated a list of ideas about what "tugs" at each side of the issue and the many stakeholders to consider. The result of our lively class discussion is below:





In addition to research on their debate topics, preparation for the debates included a significant amount of work on public speaking skills. They watched and critiqued a sample debate, brainstormed effective speaking habits, and rehearsed their speeches for one another. 

Each student was responsible for flowcharting the debate of the other group and, based on their understanding of effective argument, rebuttal, and counterargument, judging the merits of each team's presentation in order to determine a winner. 



Examples of student debate flowcharts

In both cases, the opposition sides won their debates. However, credit must be given to the proposition teams for coming up with thoughtful, well-researched, and compelling arguments in favor of genetic editing of organisms.

Students have already asked Karl and me when we'll be able to debate again. I suppose that means that debate, as a class activity, was a winner. 


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