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Lesson Plans

Stem cell research: The debate over embryonic and adult stem cell use - Lesson Plan

September 10, 2004

Full Lesson


By Lisa Prososki, a former middle and high school teacher


Biology, General Science, Ethics

Estimated Time

Two to three 50-minute class periods plus additional time for presentations and extension activities


Students will:

  • Participate in a group brainstorming session to create a variety of graphic organizers for the purpose of learning about stem cells and stem cell research.
  • Work in pairs or small groups to conduct research related to stem cells and the scientific processes and therapies related to stem cells.
  • Learn the definition of a stem cell and blastocyst.
  • Learn the two types of stem cells, embryonic and adult, and their characteristics.
  • Learn the similarities and differences between embryonic and adult stem cells.
  • Document primary source information to support their research.
  • Complete a summary project that demonstrates what they have learned about stem cell research and therapies.
  • Present their project to their classmates.


Stem cells are universal cells that have the ability to develop into specialized types of tissues that can then be used throughout the body to treat diseases or injuries. Stem Cell Research is a topic embroiled in much controversy. Scientists are hopeful that one day stem cells will be used to grow new organs such as kidneys or spinal cords as well as different types of tissues such as nerves, muscles, and blood vessels. The controversy sparked by the use of stem cells and research in this area comes from the fact that many people support the use of embryonic stem cells. These cells are taken from embryos that are just days old. As a result of this, the embryo, which is a developing human life, is destroyed. Many people feel it is immoral and unethical to destroy embryos for the sake of science. To further the debate, while these cells are easily cultured, replicate quickly, and have a relatively long life, embryonic stem cells have not yet been successfully used to provide any kind of therapy for humans and pose risks such as tumor growth and rejection by the body.

On the other side of the issue is the use of adult stem cells for research. Adult stem cells are available from a variety of sources including blood from the umbilical cord, the placenta, bone marrow, and even human fat. However, they are relatively hard to find and extract from some of these sources and do not always thrive well when cultured. In addition, they may have some limitations in the type of tissues they are able to form. For many years, adult stem cells have been used to provide a number of different therapies to people with a relatively high rate of success. Recent research has shown that adult stem cells taken from one area of the body are able to regenerate and form tissues of a different kind. In addition to the proven therapies and research, the use of adult stem cells from a patient’s own body decreases the risk of rejection because the cells are not seen as foreign invaders.

All in all, many scientists believe that the use of adult stem cells should be the primary focus of stem cell research based on past success, lower chances of patient rejection, and the idea that adult stem cell research does not spark the moral, ethical, and political debate seen so frequently when the use of embryonic stem cells is considered.


  1. Use the paragraph below to create student interest in the topic of stem cell research and facilitate discussion about scientific advances in this area. Begin by having students sit quietly at their desks. Each student should have a sheet of scratch paper numbered from 1-3 and a pen or pencil. Have all students close their eyes as you read the following paragraph:

    Imagine you live in a time and place where people no longer suffer from diseases like Parkinson’s, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, organ failure, or Alzheimer’s. Imagine that spinal cords can be replaced and that most forms of paralysis have been eliminated. Imagine that nerves, muscles, and even badly burned skin can be regenerated and replaced. Now imagine that the source of this technology comes from something that can’t be seen with the human eye. While it might sound like space-age technology that we see in science fiction books and movies, imagine that it could actually be a reality.

  2. Now have students open their eyes. Do not allow them to talk. Instead, ask them to answer each of the three questions below with the first ideas that come to mind. Read each question individually and give students approximately 60 seconds to record their ideas.
    1. How would this type of medicine/technology change the quality of life for human beings?
    2. How much would you be willing to pay for this kind of medicine/technology?
    3. Are there any negative effects that could be caused by having this kind of medicine/technology?
  3. Facilitate a class discussion about the medical technology breakthroughs described in step 1 using the questions from step 2. Have students discuss their ideas related to each question without telling them you are talking about stem cell research. Limit discussion on each question to 3-5 minutes.
  4. Upon completion of class discussion, students should be very interested in what form of medical research could someday offer these kinds of results. Introduce students to stem cells by creating a graphic organizer (see sample) to help them learn about what stem cells do and how embryonic and adult stem cells differ at a very basic level. Address the following topics in class discussion:
    • What are stem cells?
    • What are the two types of stem cells?
    • What is the difference between an embryonic and adult stem cell?
  5. Next, place students in pairs or small groups for their Fact Finding Mission. Explain that each pair/group will have one class period to learn as much as they can about stem cells and stem cell research. Using the Fact Finding Worksheet and research resources such as the Internet and other library resources, have the groups work to gather the answers to each question. Stress the importance of documenting sources and recording information correctly. Students should be prepared to share what they learn from their Fact Finding Mission.
  6. Once students have completed the research, facilitate a class discussion about what was learned. Create two graphic organizers in the process. Make a Pro and Con list related to the use of stem cells and stem cell research. Create a Venn Diagram showing the similarities and differences between research on and the use of adult stem cells vs. embryonic stem cells. Do this on an overhead or blackboard so all students can see and contribute. Finally, discuss the science of using stem cells to create other types of cells or for use as therapies for specific diseases/conditions.
  7. Once discussion is finished and the graphic organizers have been completed, have students summarize what they have learned about stem cell research by creating a poster board sized display about stem cells. These displays could have pictures, diagrams, flow charts, definitions, case studies, or other examples that relate to stem cell research and current uses in medicine. When all projects are finished, students should share them in small groups. Projects should then be posted in the classroom for others to see.

Extension Activities

  1. Create an anticipation guide with questions about the moral, ethical, and political questions related to stem cell research. Use student responses for this activity to facilitate a debate about stem cell research and the use of embryonic vs. adult stem cells to provide therapies for diseases and injuries.
  2. Have students write a letter, speech, paper, play, or create a visual representation about their personal opinion on stem cell research. Encourage students to share their opinions and use what they have learned from studying the use of embryonic and adult stem cells to support their point of view. Give all students the opportunity to share their project and opinions with the class or in small groups.
  3. As election day draws nearer, have students research the political views of their state and national leaders in regard to the use and funding of stem cell research. Once students learn how each political candidate feels about stem cell research, the use of embryonic vs. adult stem cells, and their ideas about funding such research, conduct a class discussion on whether or not this is one of the issues students would consider if they had an opportunity to cast votes in the November elections.

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