The great gene-editing debate

This exercise is a part of Educator Guide: Ban on Gene-edited Babies Proposed / View Guide

Purpose: Using the suggested debate protocol, students will research and debate a contentious issue, arguing an assigned viewpoint based on scientific evidence. 

Procedural overview: After being introduced to a contentious issue with multiple viewpoints, three groups of students will be assigned different stances and will research and argue their stances based on scientific evidence. A fourth group of students will research scientific background knowledge on the topic, so they can moderate the debate fairly and ultimately choose a winning team. This activity provides an example protocol for a debate focused on the creation of gene-edited babies, as discussed in the Science News article “Ban on gene-edited babies proposed.” We’ve also provided possible viewpoints, opening arguments and questions. The activity can be adapted for any contentious issue that can be argued from credible resources and scientific evidence.

Approximate class time: 2 class periods (1 for preparation and 1 for the debate).


Debate Preparation Worksheet (for students)

Directions for teachers:

Choose a topic with multiple viewpoints that can be argued using scientific evidence and determine a pro statement, con statement and intermediate viewpoint. Come up with a few background questions that will explore core scientific concepts and give meaning and purpose to the debate (Background Questions) and two additional questions that students should address during the debate (Debate Questions). The additional questions should encourage students to think about how their viewpoint might be applied outside of the classroom. Questions might, for example, ask how larger organizations such as the government or the general scientific community should proceed.

Divide your class into four teams, with approximately 5–7 students on each team: Team 1 (pro), Team 2 (intermediate), Team 3 (con) and Team 4 (moderators/judges).

In class on the first day, hand out the debate preparation sheet. Using the questions on the sheet as a guide, Teams 1–3 will need to research and prepare a general opening argument and answers to the Debate Questions. They’ll also want to do enough background research for possible rebuttals and a closing argument. Tell students to make sure all team members speak before a team member speaks a second time.

Team 4 will be responsible for monitoring, moderating and judging the debate. Students on Team 4 should be assigned to fill the following roles: research and present answers to Background Questions, moderate the debate by asking questions, keep track of speaking time per team, take notes throughout the debate, and present the debate results and reasoning. Once the debate closes, help students on Team 4 answer the relevant questions on the debate preparation sheet, so they can choose and announce the winning team.

Students should be prepared to speak confidently about their viewpoints and may want to prepare notecards that capture speaking points. Any preparation not completed during class should be completed for homework.

For debate day, arrange the classroom so that it is conducive to the four-team format. Align chairs in a large square along the perimeter of the room, assigning a team per side and having the speaker stand in the middle. Alternatively, place four “speaking chairs” facing each other toward the middle of the room, and place chairs for additional team members positioned behind each “speaking chair.” 

Allow students to run the debate based on the debate protocol provided below. The debate protocol is designed to fit into an hour-long class period, with each team getting 14 minutes of speaking time. You can adjust the debate schedule and timing as necessary.

As the teacher, be sure to step in if arguments veer away from scientific evidence. After all groups have presented their closing arguments, convene with Team 4 to monitor discussion as the students decide on a winner. Make sure that Team 4 can present its decision backed with examples and evidence based on notes taken during the debate.

Debate protocol

This is an example debate format designed for an hour-long class period. Please modify this format, the topic and the questions depending on what works best for your class.


Overview from Team 4 including Background Questions: 4 minutes
Opening remarks from Team 1: 3 minutes
Opening remarks from Team 2: 3 minutes
Opening remarks from Team 3: 3 minutes

The opening should be a general statement about the team’s viewpoint and the key arguments for that viewpoint.

Questions and rebuttal:

Debate Question 1 Team 1: 2 minutes
Debate Question 1 Team 2: 2 minutes
Debate Question 1 Team 3: 2 minutes
Brief caucus for preparing rebuttal: 30 seconds
Rebuttal Team 1: 1 minute and 30 seconds
Rebuttal Team 2: 1 minute and 30 seconds
Rebuttal Team 3: 1 minute and 30 seconds
Debate Question 2 Team 1: 2 minutes
Debate Question 2 Team 2: 2 minutes
Debate Question 2 Team 3: 2 minutes
Brief caucus for preparing rebuttal: 30 seconds
Rebuttal Team 1: 1 minute and 30 seconds
Rebuttal Team 2: 1 minute and 30 seconds
Rebuttal Team 3: 1 minute and 30 seconds

After each round of Debate Questions, teams will have time for a rebuttal that should consider the following:
Has another team used an incorrect fact?
Has another team used a correct fact but applied it incorrectly?
Has another team failed to support an argument with factual evidence?
Does the team disagree with how another team used a hypothetical situation, ethical principle or societal argument?
What facts seem to disprove another team’s arguments?
What hypothetical situation, ethical principle or societal argument seems to disprove another team’s arguments?

Closing remarks:

Brief caucus for preparing closing remarks: 2 minutes
Closing remarks from Team 1: 4 minutes
Closing remarks from Team 2: 4 minutes
Closing remarks from Team 3: 4 minutes
Clarifying questions from Team 4, deliberation and final verdict: 10 minutes

For the closing, Teams 1–3 should restate the team’s viewpoint, restate the main arguments modified as necessary based on the debate discussion and briefly restate the major objections to the arguments from the other teams. Team 4 should then ask clarifying questions before discussing and presenting its results.