The Human Genome Project Structured Controversy


This is an edited version of a classroom lesson initially developed by:

Nicole Hollings, W.C. Mepham High School, Bellemore, Long Island, NY

Courses for Which the Lesson is Intended:

Biology classes. (It should be preceded by at least one lesson in which the students are introduced to the topic of ethics and values in science.)

Types of Teaching/Learning Activities Employed in this Lesson:

This lesson employs the "structured controversy" in which pairs of students get to debate and discuss both sides of a controversial issue. It is best suited for a two-period laboratory session following the study of DNA, genes and the basic science of inheritence.

Category that Best Describes this Lesson:

Social issues.

Ethics/Values Issues Raised by this Lesson:

Is it ethical for the government to invest such a large fraction of its research budget in the Human Genome Project when the result is denial of funding for other worthy projects? Do such possibilities as finding the cause of many genetic diseases and identifying criminals outweigh such concerns as the possibility of using the genetic information to renew the types of eugenics programs practiced before and during World War II or to deny health insurance coverage? Given the huge investment of public funds in the Human Genome project, is the government responsible to assure that the benefits will be equally available to people of all socioeconomic levels and ethnic or racial backgrounds? Should genetic testing be made available to people who have not received the genetics counseling they need in order to fully understand and respond to the results?

Lesson Plan


This lesson was designed to help students identify and understand some of the complexities associated with the Human Genome Project. It is vital for students to understand that the enormous range of scientific and technological possibilities that will result from the complete deciphering of the human genome will require all of us to confront numerous new thorny ethical questions.

The pedagogic technique employed in the lesson is the "structured controversy." Students are assigned to four-person discussion groups, each of which is composed of two pairs of student partners. The lesson begins with each of the pairs choosing to argue in favor one of the two opposing viewpoints. After reading a brief essay supporting its viewpoint the pairs engage in a twenty minute debate/discussion. The pairs then switch sides, reading the essay supporting the opposing view and engaging in a second twenty minute debate/discussion.

By requiring students to learn both sides of the issue and allowing them to construct their own arguments in support of both positions they will come to appreciate the difficulties in establishing a reasoned position about a controversy that does justice to all of the important facets of the questions being discussed. The goal is to have each student reach his or her own ethical position on the question after a careful examination of the facts and the options.

1. At the beginning of the lab period the teacher should familiarize the class with the Human Genome Project, it's goals, and how far the research has progressed to date. A brief, non-judgmental description of some of the likely scientific and technical applications of the research should also be presented. (Note: At the time this lesson is being written, the task of sequencing the DNA in the entire Human Genome is less than half completed. This lesson will still be appropriate after the project has been completed. At that time the question to be debated will be whether the project should have been supported.)

2. Divide the class into groups of four students each of which should be further divided into two pairs of partners.

3. Give each group one copy of the "Order of Events" and two copies of each of the opposing essays; "The Human Genome Project: Science At Its Best" and "The Human Genome Project: Super Science Or Super Problem?"

5. The teacher should then go over and clarify the "Order of Events."

6. During the debate/discussions the teacher should circulate among the groups. Only if the conversations seem to be stalled or moving in an unproductive direction, should the teacher interject questions or comments designed to get things back on track. Teachers should avoid making any remarks that reveal their own positions on the ethical issues. This is important because students often look to teachers for answers, but here it is desirable for them to think for themselves.

7. The laboratory should conclude with the groups sharing and discussing their opinions on the ethical issues associate with the genome project. If time runs out, this discussion can be held at the beginning of the next class.


The Order of Events

1. Each pair of partners in the group should choose and read one of the opposing essays.

2. The partners should then discuss the readings, helping each other understand the issues raised and arguments made and developing a strategy for presenting these argument to the opposing partners.

NOTE: These first two activities should be completed in approximately ten minutes. Your teacher will announce when it is time to begin the first debate/discussion.

3. Engage in a twenty minute debate/discussion with the other partners in your group. Note that in this debate you must argue in favor of the positions taken in the essay you have read, even if they do not represent your own ethical perspectives on the issues.

4. Each pair now repeats activities 1-3, but this time reading the other essay and arguing in favor of the opposite point of view.

5. After the second debate the four members of your group should take ten minutes to write a statement expressing your points of view on the issues discussed. If you can not reach a group consensus opinion on an issue, then include the differing ideas in the statement.


The Human Genome Project: Science At Its Best

The Human Genome Project involves thousands of scientists in a huge cooperative effort. The goal is to determine the sequence of the four chemical groups called bases in all of the strands of DNA contained in the chromosomes of every human cell. This sequence of bases contains the codes for all of the estimated 100,000 human genes. The genes, in turn, determine all of the information that is passed on by inheritance during reproduction.

Although expensive and time-consuming, sequencing all of the human genes is definitely a worthwhile scientific project for the government to support. Once all of DNA has been sequenced it should be possible to find the genes responsible for all inherited human traits including numerous serious genetic diseases. Already we have found the genes responsible for causing several diseases including Huntington's disease and cystic fibrosis. People will be able to undergo genetic screening tests to determine all of their genetic diseases, and in cases of recessive genes a married couple will know which diseases they may pass on to their children. Knowing the genetic cause of a disease may make it easier to find a treatment or a cure. In cases, like heart disease, diabetes and certain types of cancer genes may not cause a disease but may make a person prone to get the disease under certain environmental conditions. In such cases those who know they have such genes may be able to take actions to reduce the chance of getting the disease. Eventually we may even learn how to cure genetic disease by gene therapy to correct or replace the defective gene. By treating or preventing genetic diseases, billions of dollars of medical costs could be saved each year.

There are many other valuable uses that can be made of the information from the Human Genome Project. A government data bank could be set up containing every person's cpmplete genetic code. This would make it easier to identify criminals and trace missing persons. Insurance companies could use the information to refuse insurance or charge high rates to a person with a high risk genetic make-up. Prospective parents might be able to use genetic information to select specific traits that they want in their children. Ultimately genetic informatiom might even be used to help perfect the human race.

The Human Genome Project: Super Science Or Super problem?

The Human Genome Project involves thousands of scientists in a huge cooperative effort. The goal is to determine the sequence of the four chemical groups called bases in all of the strands of DNA contained in the chromosomes of every human cell. This sequence of bases contains the codes for all of the estimated 100,000 human genes. The genes, in turn, determine all of the information that is passed on by inheritance during reproduction.

This expensive and time-consuming project was begun after much heated controversy. Opponents pointed out that the huge government research investment (many billions of dollars over at least ten years) would mean that hundreds of other worthwhile scientific projects could not be supported. Furthermore it can be argued that much of that money will be used to determine the sequence in parts of human DNA that does not contain any genes and is often referred to as "junk" DNA.

Although scientists hope that the genetic information can be used to cure diseases and save lives, it is not clear how likely this is. For example, although we have known the precise gene that causes Huntington's disease for several years we are no closer to finding a cure or even a treatment for this deadly condition. While it is true that a genetic test is available that enables a person to know early in life whether he or she will get this disease at about age forty, it is not clear that an individual is better off living with the knowledge that he or she is doomed.

The government and insurance companies may be anxious to gain access to each of our specific genetic codes, but is this a good thing? Shouldn't we worry that such information could be used to restrict our civil liberties? Do we want insurance companies to be able to deny medical insurance to exactly those people who may need it the most? Do we have any way of assuring that the potential beneficial uses of the genome information, paid for by everyone's tax dollars, will be as available to the poor as to the rich?

Earlier in this century the eugenics movement gained popularity. Many people who were thought to have "bad genes" were sterilized so they couldn't have children. The use of such measures by Nazi Germany gave eugenics movement a bad name. But now we once again are hearing talk about how the Human Genome Project will provide the needed information for a much more scientific effort to improve the human race. Is this any more ethically acceptable than a less scientific eugenics program?


The "structured controversy" technique, which requires students to defend both of the opposing positions in a debate is based on pedagogical evidence that a thorough understanding of any controversial issue requires a detailed examination of the arguments on both sides of the question. Students may initially claim that it isn't possible to make arguments that you don't personally believe in. The teacher can counter this by pointing out that lawyers are required to do this regularly as part of their jobs. Once students make the effort, most of them will stop complaining and find that this exercise is an enjoyable challenge.

Students should not be confined to using only the arguments presented in the pro and con essays. Although teachers should abide by the admonition against making remarks that reveal their own positions on the issue being debated, they should make an effort to correct any major incorrect or misleading statements made by the debaters. So as not to interfere with the debates in progress it is best to present these corrections to the entire class in a brief "clarification of the issue" session at the completion of the debate phase.

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