Beacon Lesson Plan Library

The Great Scientific Debate

Rachel Poore


Using information and analytical skills students learn about scientific issues that affect the public by debating their classmates. Students also write brief essays that will show they have learned how to express their reasons for their pros and cons of a particular topic.


The student knows that scientists can bring information, insights, and analytical skills to matters of public concern and help people understand the possible causes and effects of events.


-Magazines, books and newspapers with scientific articles.
-Paper and pencils/pens.
-Copies of checklist, one per student plus a master copy for use by the teacher.
-A stopwatch


1. Gather local and national scientific news articles along with a variety of science magazines such as [Nature], [Scientific American], and [Discover].
2. Pick a scientific topic that is very controversial (nature vs. nurture is always a good one, or cloning) and study both sides of the issue. Be prepared to use facts and statistics to support your argument.
3. Determine which debate rules are appropriate for your class or learner level (see weblinks below). Also set the time limits for each debate participant (this will depend on how many students are in the class and how long the class is).
4. Create a checklist, based on the assessment criteria, that can be distributed to the entire class. This should be easy to read and use.
5. Have a stopwatch or an egg timer.


1. Introduce the lesson by bringing up a current controversial topic that is scientifically related. Discuss both sides of the issue with students. At various points in the discussion become loud, angry and/or excited.

2. Have your students identify the effective, as well as the non-effective, debating methods that were used to support your point of view. Be sure to point out supporting opinions with facts, avoiding generalizations, etc.

3. Tell the students they will choose a somewhat controversial topic from the provided materials.

4. Students read and form opinions about a topic. (about 15 minutes).

5. Allow students time to prepare written essays that support their points-of-view (about 30 minutes).

6. Have students with similar opinions gather into small groups to discuss and share supportive arguments (allow 10 minutes). Ask them to point out which arguments would be persuasive and which might need work.

7. Distribute checklist to all students. Explain the point system (there are several Weblinks below with information about debating and suggestions for a point system. You can adjust points to your lesson to students.

8. Write the different topics that have been chosen on the board. Under each one place two columns pro and con.

9. Under their topics of choice, have students write their names in either the pro or con column.

10. Call students up in pairs - pro vs. con flip a coin to see who goes first.

11. Give each speaker 1-3 minutes (depending on how much time you have vs how many students in the class. To figure, use formula: 2-6 minutes X # of pairs of students) to argue his or her point. Students may use the information in their essays and information gleaned from the small groups for the basis of their presentations.

11. Remind the class not to interrupt the speakers, and that they should be filling in the checklist.

12. When all pairs have debated have the class turn in their checklists.

13. Compare class assessments to yours, then prepare a summary for each student that provides corrective feedback. Have students save this for future debates.


Each student writes a brief essay supporting his or her chosen point of view about a current scientific news story that is a public concern. Students use this essay to develop arguments to debate classmates with opposing points of view.

Use a checklist (teacher generated) to formatively assess each student of each debate as it occurs. Provide corrective feedback immediately after each debate and allow students to review their completed checklists as a practice guide for future debates.

Criteria for checklist:
1. Understands the cause for public concern.
2. Can give an informed opinion about the subject.
3. Can discuss the chosen point-of-view without becoming loud, excited or angry.
4. Can make effective arguments to offset any negative effects of the chosen event on the general public.
5. Can inform class how scientist bring information to the public, good or bad, to help people understand the cause and events.

Web Links

Rules of Parliamentary Debate.
Parliamentary Debate Rules

Good site for scoring and creating a checklist.
The F & M Guide to Parliamentary Debating

Return to the Beacon Lesson Plan Library.