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Life's Greatest Miracle

Classroom Activity

To identify the effects of maternal consumption of alcohol at various stages of pregnancy.

Materials for each student
  • copy of "Developmental Chart" student handout (PDF or HTML)
  • copy of "Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Facts" student handout (PDF or HTML)
Materials for each group
  • copy of " Case Studies" student handout (PDF or HTML)
  • Access to print and Internet resources

Part I

  1. Discuss with students the idea that a developing embryo needs a certain environment to evolve into a healthy fetus and healthy baby. It requires the proper nutrients and care to develop without incident. Tell students that in this activity, they will review the developmental process and the effect one chemical—alcohol—can have on that process.

  2. Read the student handouts to familiarize yourself with the steps students will take. Distribute copies of the "Developmental Chart" student handout. With students, review the developmental stages shown. (If students have seen the program, you may want to have them augment this chart with information from the show.)

  3. Distribute copies of the "Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Facts" student handout.

  4. Discuss elements of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), and Fetal Alcohol Effect (FAE) (See Activity Answer for more information.) Make clear to students that there may be varying degrees of FAS and FAE. Diagnosis may be easy in severe cases and difficult in less severe cases.

  5. Have students use the "Developmental Chart" and "Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Facts" student handouts to answer the questions on the "Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Facts" student handout. Have them also discuss the impact of maternal alcohol consumption during the first, second, and third trimesters on facial features, brain development, and growth.

Part II

  1. Organize students into groups. Distribute the "Case Studies" student handout. Advise them that they will be playing the part of adoption counselors. Each group will focus on one of the four case studies.

  2. Have students gather additional information for their case studies from print and Internet resources.

  3. Ask each group to present its case information and concerns about the case to the class.

  4. As an extension, have students explore the effects of prenatal maternal smoking or drug use on embryonic and fetal development and growth.

Activity Answer

Embryonic development begins with simple cell division and proceeds through cell differentiation, morphogenesis, and growth.

Drinking alcohol can have adverse effects on a developing embryo, including Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) and Fetal Alcohol Effect (FAE). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, FAS is "a disorder characterized by growth retardation, facial abnormalities, and central nervous system dysfunction." FAE is characterized by a less severe set of these symptoms. FAS and FAE are irreversible, lifelong conditions.

In cases of FAS, heavy drinking during the early weeks of pregnancy is most likely to cause the classic FAS facial features, which include a flattened filtrum (the area between the lip and the nose), small, widely-spaced eyes, a thin upper lip, and a short, upturned nose. Drinking later in pregnancy will affect the growth of the fetus and the development of the central nervous system.

All drinks containing alcohol can harm an unborn embryo or fetus. Factors that affect the severity of FAS include genetic variations, the amount and the timing of drinking during pregnancy, and the use of other drugs.

FAS is a syndrome of related symptoms. It is not possible to predict which of them will occur in a particular child. Some of the concerns might be:

Adam—Because Adam's mother drank heavily early in pregnancy and continued frequent binge drinking, Adam has a higher probability of having FAS than of a newborn whose mother did not drink, including the facial features, small head size, growth and behavioral problems, and mental retardation.

Barbie—Barbie's mother stopped drinking, but damage may already have been done during the first three weeks of her pregnancy, especially since her drinking during that time was heavy.

Carlos—Because Carlos's mother did not drink heavily, he may escape having FAS. He may still suffer some effects from her drinking, which could lead to a diagnosis of FAE.

Danielle—Like Carlos, Danielle is less likely to suffer from FAS. She may experience growth or behavioral problems, but is not likely to have the small head size and distinctive facial features associated with FAS.

When Talking About FAS and FAE
Some students may be affected to varying degrees by familial experience of alcoholism. All students may know people for whom these are daily life issues. Try to be sensitive to students' feelings by keeping discussion theoretical and general, rather than personal. Remind students that not every child of an alcoholic mother is born with FAS or FAE. The March of Dimes estimates that each year about 50,000 babies born in the United States have some degree of alcohol-related damage.

Links and Books


Dorris, Michael. The Broken Cord: A Family's Ongoing Struggle With Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. New York: HarperCollins (paperback), 1990.
Recounts an adoptive father's experience of living with an FAS child.

Web Sites

NOVA Online—Life's Greatest Miracle
On this Web site, join a debate between two scientists about using embryonic stem cells for research, learn the many ways doctors monitor a developing fetus, follow a woman in labor, see mitosis and meiosis in action, and follow the cellular growth of sex determination.

CDC—Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
Summarizes basic information about FAS.

March of Dimes: Drinking During Pregnancy
Provides a comprehensive overview of the effects of alcohol use during pregnancy, with links to related sites on the effects of smoking and cocaine use and to additional information on all types of birth defects.

The Visible Embryo
Features a spiral showing week-by-week development, and includes online games related to conception and fetal development.


These Activities align with the following National Science Education Standards:

Grades 5-8

Life Science

Science Standard C:
Life Science

Structure and function in living systems

  • Cells carry on the many functions needed to sustain life. They grow and divide, thereby producing more cells. This requires they take in nutrients, which they use to provide energy for the work that cells do and to make the materials that a cell or an organism needs.

Science in Personal and Social Perspectives

Science Standard F:
Science in Personal and Social Perspectives

Personal Health

  • Alcohol and other drugs are often abused substances. Such drugs change how the body functions and can lead to addiction.

Grades 9-12

Life Science

Science Standard C:
Life Science

The cell

  • Cells can differentiate, and complex multicellular organisms are formed as a highly organized arrangement of differentiated cells. In the development of these multicellular organisms, the progeny from a single cell form an embryo in which the cells multiply and differentiate to form the many specialized cells, tissues, and organs that comprise the final organism.

Science in Personal and Social Perspectives

Science Standard F:
Science in Personal and Social Perspectives

Personal and community health

  • An individual's mood and behavior may be modified by substances. The modification may be beneficial or detrimental depending on the motives, type of substance, duration of use, pattern of use, level of influence, and short- and long-term effects.

Teacher's Guide
Life's Greatest Miracle

Video is not required for this activity