Assessing risks associated with scientific research—scientists attempt to assess the risks associated with genetically modified crops or livestock.
Genetically Modified Organisms is a great topic to encourage deeper thinking and to have students consider the impacts of science on society. There is a lot of genuine mistrust and concern with this, but there is also a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding of the science, so it makes a good topic to link to the importance of scientific literacy.
I like to use the different thinking routines created by Project Zero for Visible Thinking and have written about them before when discussing stem cells. For GMOs, we used the Circle of Viewpoints to try to understand the many perspectives on this topic.
We came up with a great range of viewpoints:
- A concerned parent/consumer
- An FDA spokesperson
- A worker at Monsanto
- A large-scale commercial farmer in the US
- A small-scale organic farmer in the US
- A subsistence farmer in Cambodia
- A Greenpeace activist
- A UN worker
- the Pope
- an ecologist
- a member of the Just Label It coalition
It was a really useful exercise and the students tried to get under the skin of their characters! It helped the students identify the range of viewpoints and we were able to narrow down to some of the key concerns about the technology. To guide our discussion we focused principally on three examples of GMOs: Bt Cotton, Golden Rice and the recently approved AquaAdvantage GM Salmon. The risks we discussed included: possible health concerns/allergies; the risk of genetic contamination of wild organisms; increasing the evolution of Bt resistant pests and risks to non-target species. The role-play allowed us to balance these risks with the possible increases in yield and efficiency, nutritional benefits and less use of pesticides. The issues of labelling and the possible (emotional?) response we have to knowing that the food is GMO could provide the basis for a good TOK lesson as well. We also discussed the extensive testing that the GM salmon has been forced to undergo and that it has been nearly 20 years of research and development – at what point should we accept that something is low-risk? When do we decide that we have sufficient evidence in the natural sciences to support a conclusion?
The main challenge we found was placing a time limit on the discussion, as we could comfortably have debated this for several more lessons.
“Circle Of Viewpoints | Project Zero”. Pz.harvard.edu. N. p., 2016. Web. 15 Aug. 2016.