Virginia Tech Alumni Continuing Education Choices and Challenges K-12 Humanities, Science & Technology Learning Module Home

This section provides a selection of projects that your instructor may ask you to do before class, during class, or after class on the topic of 'designer children'. These activities may be assigned to individuals or groups of students.

Even if these activities are not required, thinking about the issues they raise may better prepare you for class discussion, writing assignments, or an exam.

Please send comments, suggestions, or ideas for additional individual or group projects to

Download Complete Exercises as PDF File

Background Activities

What is a gene?
What is a disease? What is illness?
The Nature/Nurture Debate
Bioethics Tutorial

What is a gene?

This activity is designed to provide you with background information on the science of gene therapy and genetic enhancement.

Please view the tutorial in real media format, which was screened by the moderator, panelists, and audience members in March 1999 to provide a common framework for their discussion. (Transcript)

To download the latest version of Real Player Software, please click here.
To download the latest version of Adobe Acrobat Reader, please click here.

To learn even more about genetics:

Then, read chapter 7, "Dr. Lu's Patients Have the Right to Be Tall (or do they?)" of Your Genes, Your Choices: Exploring the Issues Raised by Genetic Research.

By Catherine Baker, Your Genes, Your Choices is an exploration of issues raised by genetic research. It describes the Human Genome Project, the science behind it, and the ethical, legal, and social issues that are raised by the project. This book was written as part of the Science + Literacy for Health project of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Skim the other chapters as necessary.

Then, take this short quiz. (Follow your instructor's directions about submitting this quiz.)

What is a disease? What is illness?

If you had the opportunity to select for or against certain genetic characteristics of your future child, what would they be and why? How do these decisions relate to who you and your parents are? Are these genetic traits related to disease or illness? If not, what are the advantages and disadvantages? What are your definitions of 'disease' and 'illness'? What sources of information are you using?

Participate in an online discussion on this topic.

Instructors — use the discussion board available through your course homepage at or contact to reserve NetForum space.

Please treat your classmates with the same respect that you would show them within a classroom situation

Questions about using NetForum?

The Nature/Nurture Debate

Do your genes determine who you are? Or do other, environmental factors shape your personality, your height and weight, and the other characteristics that make you "you"?

Why do some people get sick, while others remain healthy? Do their genes make them more susceptible to disease, or is it because of their life history — choices they have made about food, exercise, or employment?

Research this issue, starting by exploring the websites below:

Contemporary issues in science: do your genes drive you to drink?

Nature vs. Nurture Revisited — Kevin Davies

Nature vs. Nurture (PBS Online News Hour Video, 1998)

Boys will be boys: nature vs. nurture (60 Minutes Video, 2000)

Next: Write a mock debate on the issue in which you assume the identity of two people and argue both for and against each point of view (that is, nature vs. nurture). Do these two individuals come to an agreement, or does the debate have no resolution? Cite evidence from your research to support both points of view.

Bioethics Tutorial

First read:

Thinking Ethically: A Framework for Moral Decision Making
Developed by Manuel Velasquez, Claire Andre, Thomas Shanks, S.J., and Michael J. Meyer, Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University

This reading describes five approaches to ethical decision-making: utilitarian; rights-based (also called deontological); fairness or justice; common good; or virtue. A sixth approach, dominant in the field of bioethics, is called principlism or principle-based bioethics. Read more about this approach in a primer developed by Thomas R. McCormick, faculty at the University of Washington School of Medicine:

Principles of Bioethics

Next, choose one of the scenarios below, and evaluate the situation using each of the six ethical decision-making frameworks:

  1. The father of a 30 year old man died of Huntington's Disease at age 38. Huntington's Disease is a hereditary illness causes by a single genetic error (see and that results in neurodegeneration and early death. The 30 year old man refuses to be tested for the defect before conceiving children with his wife; who does not know about the death of the man's father, or the possibility that her husband also carries the gene for Huntington's Disease. Each child of a parent with Huntington's Disease stands a 50% chance of inheriting the disease. Should a medical professional notify the man's wife, force the man to be tested, or respect the man's right to privacy and autonomy?

  2. An infectious agent that looks like smallpox is released in a rural town with limited medial expertise and equipment. Federal workers want to quarantine the area and refuse to allow medical equipment or professionals into the town, or any town residents to leave. Medical groups want to access the town, to save as many people as possible. People who do not yet have smallpox want to leave. What should be done and who should decide?

  3. Fluoridation — the practice of adding fluoride to the public water supply — has been an accepted practice in the United States for over 50 years. Fluoride is believed by many (including the American Dental Association) to significantly reduce tooth decay in the population. (See However, opponents point to an increase in fluoride overdose resulting in the poisoning of young children, crippling skeletal fluorosis in the population at large, and detrimental environmental impacts. Opponents are particularly concerned by what they see as a lack of individual choice. (See Should communities continue to fluoridate their water?

  4. A 25 year old woman tests positive for a highly contagious sexually transmitted disease for which there is currently no cure — however, early treatment significantly decreases health risk and increases quality of life. The woman has had over 20 sexual partners within the last three years, including a number of persons with whom she has practiced unsafe sex. The woman indicates that she does not plan to contact any of her former partners, nor will she provide her physician or the health department with their names, to urge them to be tested. Should the woman be legally required to provide the names of all her partners?

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Discussion Activities

When is genetic enhancement appropriate?
A Presidential Commission on Germ-line Gene Therapy
Produce a PBS Educational Video

When is genetic enhancement appropriate?

Option I:
You and your partner choose opposing views on one of the issues below and prepare short statements outlining your position that you will present in front of the class and then lead a 5-10 minute discussion.

Option II:
On your own, choose one of the issues below and prepare short statements outlining two opposing views. Be prepared to participate in class discussion.

  • Deaf parents who wish to have a deaf child for cultural reasons.
  • A junior high school basketball player who wished to genetically alter herself to continue her height growth through college in order to improve her draft opportunities post-college.
  • A physician who recommends germ-line genetic enhancement to raise the IQ of a child with two mentally disabled parents.
  • Black parents who are dark-skinned who wish to have a lighter-skinned child because of continued prejudice against dark-skinned people inside and outside the black community.
  • A woman who is told the fetus she is carrying will have a number of physical disabilities that will not be successfully treated. The physician reminds her that she can choose not to carry the pregnancy to term — but she argues for the genetic enhancement of intellectual abilities instead.
  • The US military begins to pressure the President and Congress to pass legislation requiring all children to be genetically altered to be able to tolerate a greater range of temperature and exposure to certain types of chemical and biological warfare.
  • Nationally, a campaign is launched to eliminate the sickle cell trait in the US by the year 2100 through germ-line genetic alteration.
  • Gene therapy is being developed to treat baldness in menopausal women. Should the FDA approve it, even though off-label use will surely result?

A Presidential Commission on Germ-line Gene Therapy

Your group has been convened by the US President to issue a report answering the following question: Should federal funds support experimental germ-line gene therapy?

Your report must address:

  • The distinction between gene therapy and genetic enhancement - if one exists;
  • Arguments from at least three ethical standpoints regarding both gene therapy and genetic enhancement;
  • The history of genetic and reproductive policies in the United States (such as eugenics and in vitro fertilization) and how this history does and should effect the current situation;
  • What regulations — if any — should be put in place;
  • Issues of access and affordability;
  • The goals of germ-line gene therapy protocols and whether these 'problems' can be addressed by alternative means;
  • Other issues are they are pertinent to the discussion.

Each member of your group must choose one of categories below - and act from within the boundaries of the chosen position (i.e., role-playing).

In your report, please be sure to indicate where and why disagreements occur.

  • Pediatrician
  • Parent of a mentally disabled child
  • Religious leader: please choose a faith; more than one religious leader's participation may be necessary
  • Child psychologist
  • Members of the public: a teacher, homemaker; social workers; retiree; and so on; more than one member of the public should particiapte
  • NIH administrator
  • Disability Rights advocate
  • Medical researcher whose work focuses on childhood illnesses
  • Bioethicist
  • FDA policymaker
  • Historian of genetic and reproductive policies
  • Sociologist, with expertise in the nature/nurture debate
  • Legal scholar
  • Other options must be approved by the instructor

Produce a PBS Educational Video

You or your group has been hired by PBS to produce a 30-minute program for middle school and high school students about gene therapy and genetic enhancement. Before proceeding with production, however, you or your group must provide PBS with a detailed sketch of the program including:

  • What topics will be covered (in some detail)?
  • What topics will be avoided?
  • What order will topics appear?
  • How much time will be devoted to each topic?
  • What will be the structure of the program?
  • What is the justification for each of your group's decisions?
  • What is the role of experts in your production and who would you invite?

This document you should be 4-6 pages in length, with the addition of a front-page with the title and abstract of your program, and a 3 page annotated bibliography composed of print and online materials related to your proposal.

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Review Activities

History of Eugenics and Genetic Enhancement
Genetic Enhancement Op-Ed
Constructing Exam Questions on 'Designer Children'
Plastic Surgery & Body Projects: Enhancement?
Film as a Lens to Understand Hopes and Fears about Enhancement

History of Eugenics and Genetic Enhancement

Review readings and your notes on the history of eugenics in the United States.

Argue for or against the following statement: "At each step of the decision-making process regarding whether or not experiments in genetic enhancement should proceed, the history of eugenics should play an important and guiding role."

This reponse should be 750 - 1000 words. Please indicate your sources.

Genetic Enhancement Op-Ed

In these papers you should give a brief introduction explaining the controversy over genetic enhancement, identify the key issues, and offer your own position on what ought (or ought not) be done, and then explain why.

To make the most convincing case, it is necessary not only to give the arguments in support of your own position but also to identify what the opposing arguments are (doing this fairly, of course) and to show why your arguments are stronger or more reasonable.

Recognizing areas of uncertainty and offering suggestions for what new policies or laws might be useful are also appropriate.

Keep in mind that op-ed articles are written for a general audience so you must keep your op-ed paper simple and direct. You can be dramatic, poetic, passionate. But avoid technical language. Keep sentences short and clear. And it helps to end your op-ed paper with a brief, snappy paragraph that sums up your view.

Each paper should be no longer than 750 words, double-spaced with pages numbered. You must give credit to any sources that you use including the Internet. In the case-study paper you can do this with footnotes. However, op-ed articles do not use footnotes. So here, you must work the credit into the text. For example, you could write something like: "According to Jill Hudson in her November 1999 article in Discover magazine…"

Constructing Exam Questions on 'Designer Children'

You, or you and your partner must develop an exam to test your classmates' understanding of the issues involved in this module.

The exam should be worth 50 points, and include short answer, multiple choice, and at least one essay question, among other testing mechanisms.

Also develop an 'answer sheet' for each question - provide information regarding: What types of information must be included for a 'complete' answer? How many examples should be present? How much is each question worth? How should your essay question be weighted?

Please be sure to include grammar and writing style as part of your grading calculation.

Plastic Surgery & Body Projects: Enhancement?

Research the ongoing feminist debate about the politics of non-medical cosmetic/plastic surgery (breast enlargements, liposuction, etc.) and other body projects like piercings, body-building, and so forth. Are body projects like these empowering individual women or are they, in fact, oppressing women as a group by supporting patriarchal concepts of what it means to be a woman? Or both?

You may wish to begin by looking here:

Balsamo, Anne, "On the Cutting Edge: Cosmetic Surgery and the Technical Production of the Gendered Body", Camera Obscura 28, 1992: 206-237

Balsamo, Anne. Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1996

Bordo, Susan, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993

Davis, Kathy. Reshaping the Female Body: The Dilemma of Cosmetic Surgery. New York: Routledge, 1995

Dull, Diana and Candace West, "Accounting for cosmetic surgery: the accomplishment of gender," Social Problems, 38 (1), 1991, pp. 54-70

Featherstone, M., M. Hepworth and B. Turner, eds., The Body: Social Processes and Cultural Theory. London: Sage, 1991

Gilman, Sander L. Making the Body Beautiful: A Cultural History of Aesthetic Surgery. University of California Press, June 1999

Hausman, Bernice. "Plastic Ideologies and Plastic Transformations", in Changing Sex: Transsexualism, Technology, and the Idea of Gender. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995, pp. 49-71

Jacobus, Mary, Evelyn Fox Keller, and Sally Shuttleworth, eds. Body/Politics: Women and the Discourses of Science. New York and London: Routledge, 1990

Morgan, Kathryn Pauly, "Women and the Knife: Cosmetic Surgery and the Colonization of Women's Bodies," Hypatia 6, 1991: 25-53

Wolf, Naomi, The Beauty Myth. London: Vintage, 1991

Next, compare cosmetic surgery and the possibility of genetic enhancement. How have you and society more broadly reacted to these controversial practices?

(Note: exercise adapted from

  • Why does one practice — genetic enhancement — get a lot of attention in the media and in public debates, yet cosmetic surgery receives relatively little attention?
  • Why is one practice discussed in moralistic terms and not the other?
  • To what extent is our response to each practice influenced by the particular social context in which we live? (i.e., the values of our families, our community, and our cultures; the mechanism of decision-making we use) Is this different reaction directly linked to our social context or are there other issues involved?
  • Where should our attention be — on future policies or current day practices?

Film as a Lens to Understand Hopes and Fears about Enhancement

View the film Gattaca (Sony Pictures, 1997).

Compare the issues the film raises about genetic enhancement to those raised in class and in your readings.

In what way does the film highlight concerns about genetic enhancement? In what way is the film useful or not useful as part of the discussion?

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Project Director: Doris T. Zallen
Project Co-Director: Eileen Crist
Project Coordinator: Mary Ellen Jones
Research Associates: Jane Lehr & Jonson Miller

For more information, contact the

Choices and Challenges Project
Center for Interdisciplinary Studies
Virgina Tech, Mail Code: 0227
Blacksburg, Virginia 24061
Phone: 540 231-6476 Fax: 540 231-7013


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Last Updated: March 2002
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All original material is a product of the Choices and Challenges Project
with support from the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies at Virginia Tech.