By Eran DeSilva

High school students are inundated with information and new technology each day. They are savvy when it comes to the latest social media technology - they know how to snap chat, tweet, and instagram much more efficiently and effectively than I ever could. But are they equipped to use it all in a thoughtful and responsible manner? How about when it comes to the technology that can affect their health, their diet, their medicine, their body image, and their relationships? It is in this setting that human biotechnology is rapidly advancing, posing complicated social, cultural, and political questions - and these are the questions that our high school graduates will need to answer in their lifetime. They may become the scientists, engineers or geneticists who work on new technology. Or they will be the patients, elected officials, or parents who are receiving, guiding or selecting human biotechnologies. As an educator, I want to engage students in conversations about bioethics so that they can be prepared to make good decisions personally and civically. I try to do so in a way that is engaging to them, so that they can see the relevance of bioethics to their own lives.

Image by Whitney DoAt Notre Dame High School, we take an interdisciplinary approach to our curriculum where different departments address topics through their respective perspectives. Even though I am a social studies teacher, I incorporate bioethics into my classes at the senior level. Before students come to my classes they have already studied the issues surrounding biotechnology through their science and English classes. Victoria Evashenk, the science department chair, creates and implements lessons about gene testing and gene therapy, exploring how these techniques are used, who should have access to them, who should make the decisions about their use, and how they should be regulated. She also has students complete a DNA fingerprinting lab and learn how gene sequencing is used.

As students learn genetics in science classes, they are examining the implications and questions that arise from these advancements in the humanities to see how they extend outside of a research lab. In my government class students study genetic engineering in two ways. First, during our study of the federal bureaucracy, they are introduced to the case of Jesse Gelsinger, a teenager who died in a 1999 gene therapy clinical trial. The goal is to grapple with the tenuous relationship between a competitive market that thrives on innovation and a democratic government that must serve the public good and promote safety. The students are immediately drawn in by the personal story of Jesse as they are in the same age range. They discover how the material we discuss actually has an effect on this teenager's life.

This academic year, the students also looked at the social implications of genetic engineering in our unit on elections and campaigns. In November California voters had to make a decision about Proposition 37, which would require mandatory labeling for genetically modified food. A group of students researched the proposition and presented their information to the class. This activity led students through the process on how to be an informed voter and also discover how science would impact everyday choices like what to have for dinner.

In Contemporary Social Issues bioethics is incorporated into the Disability Justice unit. Students begin by tracing the history of the disability movement. They read the book The Shape of the Eye, a thought-provoking memoir by George Estreich who shares his journey as a father who has a daughter with Down syndrome. He connects his own life with the history of eugenics and larger societal attitudes towards the disabled community. It serves as a good case study to challenges the students to consider how the medical institution can shape social and individual attitudes and behaviors towards the disabled. They also Skyped with the author and were able to ask questions about the book and deepen their understanding about the topic through a personal conversation with Mr. Estreich. The unit ends with a focus on bioethics. The students read about current events concerning emerging biotechnology like "designer babies." With their understanding from science and history classes, they are now able to evaluate the social, political and cultural ramifications this has on our local and global communities. The students recognize the social justice implications of parents being able to genetically select traits for their offspring. How will this technology challenge the disabled community's place and value in our society? Is that equitable and fair in a democratic nation that values the individual? Students are asked to consider their own role in asking hard questions and being an upstander who will participate in the ongoing public dialogue about biotechnology.

I have to admit that I feel like I have just scratched the surface of bioethics. As a social studies and fine arts teacher by training, engaging in scientific discussions is definitely a stretch and quite daunting. But it is an important one that I feel passionate about because I know bioethics is part of everyday life. The students and I are learning together because the advancements are coming so rapidly. It is hard to anticipate what the latest technology will enable humans to do. My goal is to equip the students with the critical thinking skills to navigate the ethical questions that advancements in biotechnology and genetics will bring. I want them to be able to evaluate the information that they are given and to help them make good decisions for themselves and for their community. Moreover, I want to foster their creativity and imagination so that they can be problem solvers and visionaries. I hope my students create a thoughtful, just, local and global community by being advocates engaged in complicated and exciting issues that today's technology brings.


Eran DeSilva teaches Social Studies during the academic year and Art during the summer at Notre Dame High School in San Jose, California.

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The purpose of the Genetic Bill of Rights is to introduce a global dialogue on the fundamental values that have been put at risk by new applications of genetics.
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The Council for Responsible Genetics’ Genetic Privacy Manual: Understanding the Threats- Understanding Your Rights will be a comprehensive, electronic source of information for the consumer on these issues.
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