Authentic Lessons for 21st Century Learning

What's a GMO?

Genetics and Ethics

K20 Center, Quentin Biddy | Published: November 22nd, 2022 by K20 Center

  • Grade Level Grade Level 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th
  • Subject Subject English/Language Arts, Science
  • Course Course Biology I
  • Time Frame Time Frame 2-3 class period(s)
  • Duration More 120 minutes


In this lesson, students will learn about a divisive issue—genetically modified organisms, or GMOs—by discussing their opinions, conducting research on the topic with their peers, and, ultimately, taking part in a formal, courtroom-style debate. By conducting their own research and anticipating their peers' debate strategies, students can develop a perspective about GMOs with which to make informed decisions about genetic science and its role in today’s society.

Essential Question(s)

Is everything that is legally acceptable always ethically acceptable? What are genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and how are they produced? What are the ethical dilemmas surrounding GMOs and their use?



Students view a video clip in which people on the street are asked what "GMO" means, and then engage in a discussion about what they know about GMOs. Students answer the question "Are GMOs good or bad?"


Students work in groups, forming a prosecution team or a defense team. With their groups, students rotate through stations to gather research about genetically modified organisms.


Students prepare for a debate by crafting opening and closing statements, making claims, citing evidence, and formulating questions for the opposition.


Students debate pros, cons, and ethical concerns regarding GMOs, presenting claims supported by evidence.


Students who are not in either active debating group listen to each of the debate proceedings as members of the jury. They analyze the arguments presented and use a rubric to “judge” the winner of the case.


  • Case Evaluation and Scoring Form (one per student; attached)

  • Case Evaluation Rubric (one per student; attached)

  • Case Preparation Notes (Student Handout) (one per student; attached)

  • Case Preparation Notes (Teacher's Guide) (optional; attached)

  • Cornell Notes handout (optional; attached)

  • Debate Structure Guide (attached)

  • Research and Data Organizer (one per student; attached)

  • Research Resources (optional; attached)

  • Sticky notes (one per student)


Begin by showing your students the clip What's a GMO? from Jimmy Kimmel Live.

Afterward, ask students what they know about GMOs and invite them to share their thoughts with the class. Leave the question open for discussion. Write students' thoughts on a whiteboard or projector space to track the discussion.

Pass out a sticky note to each student for use in a Sticky Bars activity. Ask students to consider their own beliefs about whether GMOs are good or bad. Ask them to write the reasoning for their beliefs on their sticky notes and then post them along the graph line at a location that best reflects their beliefs (good, bad, or somewhere in the middle). The completed line should represent a distribution graph of all participants' beliefs.

Example of a Sticky Bar graph with a few students' answers.

Facilitate a class discussion based on what students have written on their notes and where they have placed them.


Invite students to take part in a mock trial to debate the issues and ethics surrounding GMOs. Review the attached Debate Structure Guide with students. Discuss the format and time allotted for each portion of the debate.

To help familiarize students with the public debate format, consider showing an instructional or example video such as this two-part tutorial: YFD Mock Debate Tutorial Part 1 and YFD Mock Debate Tutorial Part 2.

Organize students into groups of 4-5, making sure to have an even number of groups so that you can pair each group with another group. Assign each pair of groups one of the following topics, with one of the groups serving on the defensive (affirmative) side, and the other serving on the prosecution (negative) side:

  • Genetically modified animals

  • Genetically modified agricultural crops

Ask each group to move to a separate table. Hand out a copy of the attached Research and Data Organizer to each student. Have groups conduct their own research, locating and citing evidence from a range of sources to support their conclusions. Let students know that this research will be used to construct their cases. This research should allow students to develop a perspective with which to analyze the information they will see later. You can also provide specific resources, such those on the attached Research Resources document for students to use.


Give each student a copy of the following attached handouts: Case Evaluation Rubric, Case Evaluation and Scoring Form, and Case Preparation Notes (Student Handout). On the Case Preparation Notes handout, have groups start by filling in their position and affirmative or negative status, and then have them refer to their research to complete the handout.

Students should prepare their opening and closing statements for their assigned position (affirmative or negative) as well as an anticipated opening and closing statement for the opposing position. Groups should work from these opposing opening and closing positions to construct their rebuttals.


When all groups are prepared, review debate etiquette: participants should not interrupt each other and must stop when the buzzer sounds. As timekeeper, be sure to give a warning signal 30 seconds before time is up for each phase, and count down the final 5 seconds.

Select a pair of opposing groups to begin the debate.

Tell members of the other groups that they will serve as the jury. Jury members should label and fill out a scorecard on their Case Evaluation and Scoring Form handouts for every debate they watch. Have the jury take notes on the handout to explain their scores. If you are including audience questions at the end of each debate, jury members can use their notes to help identify questions.

Proceed with the debate according to the Debate Structure Guide. Begin with the affirmative group's opening statement (1 minute). Proceed to the negative group's opening statement (1 minute). Continue through rebuttals (1 minute per side), cross-examination (2–3 minutes per side), second rebuttals (1 minute per side), and closing statements (1 minute per side). If you choose to include audience questions (2-5 minutes), insert them between second rebuttals and closing statements or after closing statements. Act as moderator during the debates, keeping both groups within the time limits for each phase.

Repeat the debate process with the remaining pairs of groups.


After all debates have been held, facilitate a class discussion based on the lesson's essential questions:

  • What are genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and how are they produced?

  • What are the ethical dilemmas surrounding GMOs and their use?

  • Is everything that is legally acceptable always ethically acceptable?

Have students turn in their Research and Data Organizer, Case Evaluation Rubric, Case Evaluation and Scoring Form, and Case Preparation Notes handouts. These handouts function as evaluations for the lesson.