Authentic Lessons for 21st Century Learning

Who Was Henrietta Lacks?

Ethics in Scientific Research

Alonna Smith, Lindsey Link | Published: August 10th, 2022 by K20 Center

  • Grade Level Grade Level 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th
  • Subject Subject Science
  • Course Course Biology I
  • Time Frame Time Frame 4 class periods


This lesson is intended to support life science standards found in biology. The lesson is not intended to cover the standards completely, but rather to supplement them and raise awareness of ethical issues and racism in science and medicine.

Essential Question(s)

Should scientists be allowed to use a person's tissues or cells for research without that person's consent?



Students reflect on the essential question and then watch a video about Henrietta Lacks and how her cells became the first immortalized human cell line.


In groups, students use the Jigsaw strategy to read a collection of articles and share what they learned with their peers.


Students participate in a Socratic Seminar.


Students watch a video about ethical data collection and use the Inverted Pyramid strategy to debrief the new information.


Students use the “I Used to Think… but Now I Know” strategy to close the lesson.


  • Lesson Slides (attached)

  • Inside Out handout (attached; one per student)

  • I Used to Think… but Now I Know handout (attached; one per student)

  • “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the Sequel” (linked; one per group)

  • “Henrietta Lacks: The Mother of Modern Medicine” (linked; one per group)

  • “Henrietta Lacks: Science Must Right a Historical Wrong” (linked; one per group)

  • “Five Reasons Henrietta Lacks Is the Most Important Woman in Medical History” (linked; one per group)

  • Student devices with internet access (optional)


20 Minute(s)

Introduce the lesson using the attached Lesson Slides. Display slide 3 and ask students to consider the essential question: Should scientists be allowed to use a person's tissues or cells for research without that person's consent?

Move to slide 4 and pass out the attached Inside Out handout. Using the Inside Out strategy, have students record their individual responses to the essential question in the innermost circle. Emphasize to students that there are no wrong answers here. This is a question many will feel differently about, and students’ opinions might shift as they gather more information.

The handout will be used through the Explore portion of the lesson, so ask students to keep theirs on hand.

Move to slide 5 and play the following video, titled “The immortal cells of Henrietta Lacks,” to introduce her as the person whose cells became the first immortalized human cell line.

After the video, move to slide 6 and share the lesson’s learning objective with students.


50 Minute(s)

Display slide 7 and ask students to get into groups of four. Then, pass out copies of the following readings to each group or have students access them online:

In their groups, instruct each student to choose just one of the four articles to read. Each group member must read a different article, as they will use the Jigsaw strategy later to share what they learned with the rest of their group.

Display slide 8 and explain the Why-lighting strategy to students. As they read, students will highlight passages or information they deem important, then annotate in the margins to explain why they highlighted the information.

As students wrap up the reading, move to slide 9. In the middle circle of the Inside Out handout, have students write at least three questions or things they wondered about while reading.

Once students have completed the reading, move to slide 10 and have students form groups with those who read the same article as them. In these groups, each student will share what they wrote in the middle circle of their Inside Out handout and add any additional information they get from their peers. Students also should discuss their general takeaways from the reading.

Move to slide 11 and have students get back into their original groups. Each member of the group should share what they learned from their reading, as well as new discoveries from their peers, by revealing what they wrote in the middle circle of their Inside Out handout.

Move to slide 12. In the outermost circle of the Inside Out handout, students will write important information they learned from their peers about the articles they did NOT read.


120 Minute(s)

If this is the first time you are having students participate in a Socratic Seminar, below are some helpful tips.

Display slide 14 and divide the class into two groups. Explain to students that these two groups will be the inner and outer circles of the Socratic Seminar.

  • The role of the inner circle of students is to answer the questions and have a discussion. Because only half the class will be in this circle, students may be more likely to participate—with fewer people in a speaking role, students generally are more willing to jump into the discussion.

  • The role of the outer circle of students is to quietly record observations of the speakers. The presence of this outer circle will help the speakers be more conscious of their participation. With peers observing and listening, students tend to put more effort into participating in a meaningful way.

When students are ready to begin, ask the inner circle one of the questions that closely aligns with the text to get the conversation started. This helps build students’ confidence for later when the tougher, more abstract questions are introduced.

Provide 15–20 minutes for the discussion of each question per group. Once the first group in the inner circle has completed their discussion, instruct students to switch spots with those in the outer circle.

Once both groups have had a chance to participate as speakers in the inner circle, take some time as a class to reflect and evaluate. Have students complete 1) a general evaluation of the activity itself, and 2) a self-reflection on their performance throughout the activity. Below are some guiding questions to consider asking students:

  1. At any point, did the seminar revert to something other than a dialogue? If so, how did you handle this?

  2. What evidence did you see of people actively listening and building on others' ideas?

  3. How has your understanding of the text been affected by the ideas explored in this seminar?

  4. What parts of the discussion did you find most interesting? In what parts were you least engaged?

  5. What would you like to do differently as a participant the next time you are in a seminar?


20 Minute(s)

Display slide 15 and show students the following video, titled “Henrietta Lacks, the Tuskegee Experiment, and Ethical Data Collections: Crash Course Statistics #12.”

After students have watched the video(s), display slide 17 and ask students to pair up. Student pairs will use the Inverted Pyramid strategy to discuss the implications of the Tuskegee study, the harm it has done to Black Americans, and students’ feelings about scientific research on human subjects.

Move to slide 18. Have each pair join another pair of students to form a small group and discuss the same prompts.

Move to slide 19 and bring everyone back together for a whole-class discussion. Ask students if watching the video(s) and discussing with their peers changed their perspective in any way, and if so, how and why?


15 Minute(s)

Display slide 20 and pass out the attached I Used to Think… but Now I Know handout.

To close the lesson, have students use the “I Used to Think… but Now I Know” strategy to write a personal reflection that includes their stance on the essential question posed at the beginning: Should scientists be allowed to use a person's tissues or cells for research without that person's consent?

Students should begin their written reflection with “I used to think…” and then copy what they initially wrote in the innermost circle of the Inside Out handout.