A genethics debate within an interdisciplinary curriculum


  • Julie M Aultman

Julie M Aultman, Department of Behavioral and Community Health Sciences, Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine, 4209 State Route 44, PO Box 95, Rootstown, Ohio 44272, USA. Tel: 00 01 330 325 6113; Fax: 00 01 330 325 5910; E-mail: jmaultma@neoucom.edu

Context and setting Approximately 200 Year 1 medical and pharmacy students are required to take a course entitled ‘Molecules to Cells’, for 8 weeks. This interdisciplinary medical and pharmacy course combines lectures in molecular biology, cell biology, genetics and biochemistry, in addition to genethics, which identifies ethical issues surrounding eugenics, genetic counselling and engineering, and gene therapy. Appealing to student interest, the Genethics Debate was introduced last year to identify and strengthen the intersection between genetics and ethics.

Why the idea was necessary Because both pharmacy and medical students participate in Molecules to Cells, it was important to provide team-building activities and lessons to develop skills which will prove valuable when these future pharmacists and doctors work together in the clinical setting. Furthermore, because all students undertook a foundation course in bioethics prior to this course, it was necessary to evaluate students’ ethical knowledge in more fruitful ways beyond standardised testing. By introducing a Genethics Debate, students are challenged to organise and work within interdisciplinary teams, explore controversial issues at the intersection of medicine, science and ethics through self-directed learning, and build upon leadership, communication, critical thinking and organisational skills.

What was done A cohort of 200 medical and pharmacy students were divided into 10 teams. Each team was responsible for a particular position, affirming or refuting one of five issues within genethics, including: Having a Child to Save a Child; Genetic Testing of Children for Late-Onset Genetic Conditions; Targeting College Students for Egg Donation; Genetic Engineering to Increase Bone Density (to Prevent Osteoporosis), and Claiming Property Rights for Genetic Material. A total of 3 hours was designated in the Molecules to Cells curriculum for the Genethics Debate; each topic, debated between two teams, was expected to take approximately 30–35 minutes. Following each of the five debates, students anonymously voted on which teams were more persuasive using TurningPoint technologies, which automatically calculate and reveal the polling results on a PowerPoint slide.

To effectively manage approximately 20 students in each team, up to two leaders were appointed by individual teams, who organised students’ roles and levels of contribution to the debate. Although up to four students actively participated as speakers, presenting arguments and rebutting the opposition, the majority of students were responsible for researching the topic, identifying opposing arguments, organising and participating in a mock or practice debate, and writing a required paper (3–5 pages). The assigned paper, an evaluative measurement of students’ critical thinking skills and ethical, scientific and medical knowledge, is intended to support each group’s topic and position as presented in the formal debate.

Evaluation of results and impact Team performance is evaluated by the graded paper assignment and debate presentation; individual students are assigned grades based on team performance and self-reported evaluations. Students also complete a course evaluation. Students’ evaluations have been very positive; most students comment on how they have been able to see previously unconsidered and different perspectives because of the debates. Because faculty members and the administration recognise how team-based and self-directed learning impacts students’ education, the Genethics Debates have become an integral part of the curriculum.