For Educators

Stem Cell Research – Procedures For Teachers

PrepPreparing for the lesson
StepsConducting the lesson
ExtensionAdditional Activities


Media Components

Computer Resources:

  • Modem: 56.6 Kbps or faster.
  • Browser: Netscape Navigator 4.0 or above or Internet Explorer 4.0 or above.
  • Personal computer (Pentium II 350 MHz or Celeron 600 MHz) running WindowsÆ 95 or higher and at least 32 MB of RAM.Macintosh computer: System 8.1 or above and at least 32 MB of RAM.
  • Adobe Acrobat Reader 4.0 or higher. Download the free Adobe Acrobat reader here:

Bookmarked sites:

TIP: Prior to teaching, bookmark all of the Web sites used in the lesson and create a word processing document listing all of the links. Preview all sites and videos before presenting them to the class.

  • National Institutes of Health — Stem Cell Basics This Web site offers an excellent introduction to the field of stem cell research. For the purposes of this lesson, have students read through the Introduction page including the sections “What are stem cells and why are they important?” and “Stem Cells for the Future Treatment of Parkinson’s Disease.” The remainder of the site is more science-heavy, but is appropriate for an upper-level science or bioethics class.
  • PBS Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly: Perspectives — Religious Views on Stem Cell Research, July 27, 2001. Explores the fundamental issue in the controversy surrounding stem cell research: whether one-week-old unwanted human embryos have the moral status of persons or not. Provides an overview of the official positions taken by major Christian and Jewish denominations on the issue of stem cell research.
  • PBS Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly: News — Stem Cell Politics, July 6, 2001. Highlights the way in which the issue of stem cell research has divided the pro-life/ anti-abortion community, as it further probes the question of when life begins.
  • PBS Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly: Perspectives — Stem Cell Debate, August 10, 2001. An in-depth look at former Senator Connie Mack’s position as a pro-life Catholic who is also pro-stem cell research.
  • Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, Inc. Good source of information on Parkinson’s disease The following especially relates to this lesson:, a “Joint Statement on President Bush’s Decision” to allow restricted federal funding for stem cell research. Note: This resource is appropriate for Groups 1, 3 and 5.
  • “Stem Cell Research and “Therapeutic” Cloning: A Christian Analysis.” The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity Outlines a number of key arguments made by those who object to the pursuit of healing via unethical means. The authors argue: “The fact that human embryonic stem cell research necessitates the destruction of human embryos renders such research unethical-regardless of its alleged benefits.” Note: This resource is appropriate for Groups 2, 4, and 6.
  • “The Case for Adult Stem Cell Research,” by Wolfgang Lillge, M.D. 21st Century Science and Technology Magazine. An argument for the use of adult stem cells for medical research versus embryonic stem cells. Note: This resource is appropriate for Group 4.
  • The Stem Cell Decision: Religion — Bush’s decision doesn’t end debate Ethicists, religious leaders unhappy with his bid to find common ground. San Francisco Chronicle, August 10, 2001. Explores various perspectives among religious leaders regarding stem cell research. Note: This resource is appropriate for Groups 2 and 3.


Teachers will need the following supplies:

  • Board and/or chart paper
  • Ideally a screen on which to project the Web-based video clips
  • Handouts of Web resources if computers are not available in the classroom

Students will need the following supplies:

  • Computers with the capacities indicated above
  • Notebook or journal
  • Pens/pencils
  • Dictionaries

Other Prep: Contact individuals who represent one of the following groups to act as guest speakers (ideally, speakers should cover at least 2 opposing positions; the other positions can be covered by the readings):

  • the Catholic Church (someone who adheres to official church doctrine);
  • a Jewish Congregation;
  • another major religion, perhaps one relevant to some of your students;
  • the medical research profession (someone who is pro-stem cell research);
  • a research center or foundation for a particular disease (like Parkinson’s, Lou Gehrig’s, Leukemia)
  • a pro-life advocacy group

Good sources for finding representatives of these groups include: the phone book (particularly the “community” directory in the beginning), a directory of churches or temples in the area, and Internet search engines. You should contact these places, describe the project your students are working on, and ask if there are individuals who might be willing to make themselves available as speakers. Contact speakers well in advance of the lesson to better the chances of their availability.

Note: As an alternative, you may consider adapting this lesson in such a way as to allow students to contact speakers themselves. At the end of Activity One, for example, the class could be divided in half (pro- and anti- stem cell research) and then asked to identify potential organizations and/or speakers in the community. Another option is to have students identify potential speakers after they have already developed their own group’s positions. The speakers could serve to help student groups defend or support their positions. Again, students may identify speakers by using the phone book, a directory of churches or temples in the area, and Internet search engines. By involving students in the identification and invitation of speakers, they have a chance to seek out advice, expertise, and support from members of their own communities.


Introductory Activity:

  1. Put the following question on the board: What is stem cell research?
  2. Ask for volunteers to respond to this question, and track the answers on the board.
  3. Ask students to read the following selection from the National Institutes of Health Primer on Stem Cells:
    For the purposes of this lesson, have students read through the preliminary introduction and section A of the Introduction, “What are stem cells and why are they important?” Also have them read the yellow box included in section A, titled “Stem Cells for the Future Treatment of Parkinson’s Disease.”

    • As they read, ask students to write down any new terms they come across. These might include: organisms, embryo, embryonic stem cells, blastocyst.
    • As a class, spend a few minutes defining these terms — students should offer their own definitions (based on the reading and prior knowledge), and should supplement them with dictionary definitions.
    • Track these definitions on the board and have students do the same in their notebooks. Remind students that a working knowledge of these new vocabulary terms will help them throughout the lesson and in their class projects.
  4. Put the following text on the board:”A woman in her thirties develops Parkinson’s disease. She and her family, including her young daughter, are willing to try any new experimental medicine to combat the progression of the disease. She wants to try anything in order to both help herself, and to help future Parkinson patients.”
  5. Then post chart paper with the following questions written out. Cover all the questions except for the one that students are responding to. Tell students to write a “Yes” or “No” response in their notebooks. There should be no discussion or verbal response during this activity. The questions:
    1. Should doctors try whatever they can to treat this patient and to learn to treat Parkinson’s and other diseases?
    2. Should doctors explore stem cell research and try various stem cell therapies to try to treat this patient?
    3. Should doctors try various stem cell therapies if they have to use human embryonic stem cells?
    4. Should doctors use embryonic stem cells if the unused embryos were going to be discarded anyway? (e.g. in the case of a fertility clinic with extra embryos left over after fertility processes)
    5. Should doctors use embryonic stem cells if the embryo will be killed in the process?
  6. Discussion:
    • Ask students if it was difficult to answer these questions. Which questions were most difficult to answer? Why?
    • Chances are that students, like the public overall, will identify the question about killing embryos in the process of stem cell research/therapies as a very difficult question. Ask students why they think this is the most controversial aspect of stem cell research, and what other controversial issue it brings to mind. (Abortion)
    • Ask students to identify the fundamental question in the debate over the use of human embryonic stem cells. Students will probably come up with something along the lines of: when life begins; when is an embryo considered a life; do early embryos have the same human status as later embryos or as babies once born.

Learning Activities

Activity One: Exploring the issue of stem cell research through role-playing and research

  1. Explain to students that an evaluation of their work during this lesson will be based on their performance in a number of main areas:
    • Participation in class discussion
    • Reading of materials, and thorough responses to the questions.
    • Quality of participation in group work
    • Exploring Controversial Issues organizer
    • Listening to Guest Speakers handout
    • Quality of questions for guest speakers.
    • Performance on the culminating activity: a debate over whether embryonic stem cell research is ethical.
  2. Assign students to the following role-playing groups (the number of students in each group depends on how large your class is). Remind students that the position they have been assigned does not necessarily reflect their own personal views, and that the exercise provides an opportunity to explore the subject from a particular angle.
    1. Group 1: Representatives from the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation
    2. Group 2: Representatives of the Catholic Church who adhere to official church policy
    3. Group 3: Representatives of Orthodox and Reform Jewish congregations
    4. Group 4: Representatives of a national group that supports adult stem cell research but not embryonic stem cell research
    5. Group 5: University medical research team that has worked for decades on research to cure cancer and other diseases
    6. Group 6: Pro-life activist group
  3. Inform students that the culminating activity for this lesson will be a debate between Groups 1-6, and that during the next few days they will need to conduct research and listen to guest speakers in order to develop their positions and prepare their arguments for the debate. Two other aspects of the preparation for the debate are: 1) researching the counter-position and preparing to respond, and 2) identifying allies among the groups and preparing some joint arguments and statements. Each group will also prepare a visual representing some aspect of their position or presentation.
  4. Have students read the following:
    • Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly: Perspectives — Religious Views on Stem Cell Research, July 27, 2001.
    • Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly: News — Stem Cell Politics, July 6, 2001.

      Allow 20-30 minutes for reading. Remind students to do the following as they read: 1) write down any unfamiliar vocabulary, 2) underline or highlight points or facts that strengthen their group’s position, and 3) indicate with an arrow in the margin those points or facts that strengthen other groups’ positions and identify/write down the group number it supports (i.e. Group 1).

  5. Have students complete the following tasks in their small groups following the readings:
    • Define any of the new terms they identified in the readings. Students should draw on one another’s knowledge and use dictionaries to define new terms.
    • Share what they have underlined or highlighted to use in developing their group’s position.
    • Share notes about the sections they marked with an arrow to represent the opposing position’s arguments.
    • Working as a group, students should each fill out the Exploring Controversial Issues organizer. Students should fill out both columns, labeling Position One: “Our Position: Pro Embryonic Stem Cell Research” or “Our Position: Anti-Embryonic Stem Cell Research,” as the case may be. Label Position Two: “The Opposing Argument.” Explain to students that this is a good way to organize their arguments, and that it is especially useful to list an argument and counter-argument side by side.
    • Discuss a few ways in which they would respond to the opposing position’s arguments.
    • Prepare two questions for an expert on the pro-stem cell research position and two questions for an expert on the anti-stem cell research position. One student in each group should record these questions and hand them in (to be returned at the start of class the following day).
  6. Let students know that during the following class period, there will be a number of guest speakers representing various positions on the stem cell research debate.

Homework: Each group should continue its research, delving deeper into its particular position. Have students select additional sites from the bookmarked list of resources, especially those that are relevant to their particular positions. Encourage them to follow links provided in each resource to find additional information. Remind students to include key arguments from their continued research on the Exploring Controversial Issues organizer.

Note: See note in the “Other Prep” section regarding possible alternatives to your selection of guest speakers.

Activity Two: Guest speaker panel

1. Hand back each group’s questions with any comments or suggestions. Let the groups reassemble and review their questions.

2. Introduce the speakers on the panel, noting their affiliations. Allow each speaker time to present her or his position on the following topic: Is embryonic stem cell research ethical, and should it be legal in the United States? Students should take notes using the Listening to Guest Speakers handout.

3. A representative from each group will have a chance to pose the group’s questions to the panelists. Urge all students to record each question and the subsequent response in the “Q&A” section of Student Handout #2.

4. Students hand in the Listening to Guest Speakers handout. Return these the following day so that students can use them to prepare for the debate.

Culminating Activity/Assessment: Preparing for the debate

  1. Return the Listening to Guest Speakers handouts to students.
  2. Explain the nature of the final presentation to students:Groups 1-6 will engage in debate with one another over the following issue: Is embryonic stem cell research ethical and should it be pursued in the United States? Tell students that this debate is a learning experience, and there will not be a winner or loser at the end. Rather, students will have the opportunity to speak powerfully and persuasively in support of a particular position, and will learn more about both that position and the opposing positions.Students will have two days to prepare for the debate. Each group should be prepared to do the following:
    1. Identify its ally(ies) during the preparation time, and prepare a joint argument or statement with that group or groups to be presented during the debate.
    2. Provide a short (2-3 minutes) overview of its position.
    3. Present key arguments, facts, and perspectives to support this position. Students should draw from their notes on Exploring Controversial Issues and Listening to Guest Speakers. Include at least one visual (chart, banner, mural, key quotes, etc.).
    4. Listen and respond to questions or challenges from other groups.
    5. Present a short (2-3 minutes) closing argument.

    Debate Structure:
    Note: The debate should take two class periods. Groups 1-3 present and respond to questions/challenges (steps 2 and 3 below) on the first day, and groups 4-6 proceed on the second day.

    1. Each group presents a 2-3 minute overview of its position.
    2. Group 1 has 8-10 minutes to present its key arguments. (Note that students in other groups should take notes and record questions.)
    3. Group 1 listens and responds to questions or challenges from other groups. (3-5 minutes)
    4. Group 2 has 8-10 minutes to present its key arguments. (Note that students in other groups should take notes and record questions.)
    5. Group 2 listens and responds to questions or challenges from other groups. (3- 5 minutes)
    6. Group 3, Group 4, Group 5 and Group 6 repeat steps two and three.
    7. Any groups that have joint arguments or statements to present now do so.
    8. Each group presents 2-3 minute closing argument.
  3. Have students suggest how their performance on this project might be assessed.Track their responses on chart paper. Then share the Rubric for Assessment on Culminating Project and explain that these are the elements that you will consider as you evaluate students’ work. Ask the class if any of the evaluation criteria that they identified are missing from your rubric. If they are, you might agree to incorporate all or some of them into the rubric.
  4. Allow class preparation time (two class periods). Urge students to assign tasks to each member of the group in a way that gives each student an opportunity to participate actively in the final presentation. If time permits, encourage students to research additional resources from the bookmarked resource list in order to strengthen their positions and weave new information into their presentations.

Homework: Students work on their presentations, including the preparation of visuals.

Culminating Activity/Assessment: The Debate

1. The debate:

  • Remind students that they will be assessed for both their individual and group efforts in these presentations.
  • As each group presents, the rest of the class should take notes and record questions they have.
  • Reiterate that you will be timing the debate, and that you will let groups know when they have 2 minutes left and then when time is up.


  • Have students develop and conduct surveys or polls (see Using Surveys and Polls handout) to gauge public opinion regarding embryonic stem cell research. After conducting the surveys or polls, students could create charts or graphs to illustrate their findings.
  • Students could investigate other controversial issues in bioethics such as human cloning, DNA banking, genetic testing, and eugenics. Students may use the following sites to begin researching these areas: