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Teaching Controversial Issues:
Using Debates and Mock-Meetings in High School Science Classes

Russ Dudley and Mindi Schneider
2005-2006 CSIP Fellows

In addition to learning key concepts and principles in science, students need an understanding of how science can both create and inform controversies outside of the laboratory. This curriculum provides a structure for using debates and mock-meetings in high school classrooms to work through controversial issues in science. The general structure of the curriculum is as follows:

  1. Background Reading: Select short and informative pieces of background reading on a controversial topic, balancing the number of PRO & CON positions represented.
  2. Event Announcement: Create a “real world” situation as the context for the meeting/debate. For example: a town hall meeting, a public hearing, a city council meeting, a share holder meeting, a grant funding board meeting, etc.
  3. ‘Seeing Both Sides’ worksheet: Have students develop points and arguments for each side of the issue, moving beyond personal opinions.
  4. Assign Roles: Have students develop arguments based on their assigned role. Encourage them to cite sources of information.
  5. The Event: Create a docket, having students present their arguments individually in a point-by-point manner, alternating between PRO and CON positions. After all presentations are made, members of a pre-appointed panel ask questions. Students should remain in their roles, and answer questions accordingly.
  6. Reflection: Have students write a 1-page reflection immediately following the meeting/debate.

This curriculum has been used in biology, general science, and agricultural science classrooms. It can be completed in as few as a single class period, although 3 to 5 class periods are ideal for using the debate as a capstone for lessons that teach the science behind the controversy.

Downloadable WORD files:

Teacher's Guide to Teaching with Controversial Issues
Examples of Controversial Issues Involving Science

Materials specific to conducting a town hall meeting to debate crop genetic engineering and GMOs:

What is Crop Genetic Engineering? (Teacher's Version)

Student Materials:




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