Will We Still Be Human?

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SWBAT create arguments based on evidence as to whether or not their new version of "extreme humans" are a new species.

Big Idea

How much can you alter humans before they are no longer considered humans? Students focus on this question as they practice argumentation supported by evidence.


20 minutes

I begin the lesson by asking students to define "species".  I give students a couple of minutes to discuss this and record their first guess in their science journal.  At this point, students have a gut understanding of what a species is but they struggle putting their thoughts into words.  I ask a couple of students to share their guesses (we have worked a lot in class on risk taking and that it is ok to be wrong).  

To help students put their thoughts into words, I show this HHMI video on the Speciation of Anoles and then have them refine their definition. 

 I again ask students to share their responses and use those to develop a class definition.  I give students a few minutes to draw a picture that will help them remember the definition. 

I like to use pictures and drawing, especially when we are learning something new or complex.  Pictures are easier for students to remember than words most of the time, so as long as students are given enough time to draw, each students' unique vision should be easily remembered.  

I require the pictures to be large (at least half a page), neat, and colored.  Something about having to color the picture makes students take the assignment more seriously and they take more care with their drawing.  The quality of the pictures students create has improved significantly since I started requiring them to be colored.


50 minutes

For this part of the lesson, it is helpful to have the pictures that the students created in the lesson, Is It the End of Humanity?, hanging around the room.

I begin this portion of the lesson by going over the article 10 Possible Next Steps in Human Evolution (I made it into a PowerPoint to make it more usable and put it in the resources for this lesson). Many of these entries have the potential to start a class discussion, however the last entry, "self improvement through technology", is the perfect segue between the End of Humanity lesson, in which students "redesigned" the human species, and the debate on whether these modified organisms will still be human.

I show students the Will We Still Be Human? PowerPoint so they can consider some of their redesigns as they consider this question.

As with most philosophical/ethical questions, there is no "correct" answer. I am looking for students to work together to create and argument and to be able to support that argument with evidence (SP7). Additionally, I want students to begin to anticipate the arguments the other viewpoint will offer and be able to counter those arguments effectively.

The first step in preparing for this activity is to assign students to one of three groups: 

  • Pro: the redesigned organisms are still the human species
  • Con: the redesigned organisms are a new species
  • Judges: these students will decide which side presents the strongest argument

I like to keep these groups random as students should be able to argue any side of a position and put aside their personal perspectives if needed. By having students with opinions on both sides of the issue, groups are better able to anticipate and plan for the counter arguments that are likely to be made.

The next step is for all students to conduct research on what it means to be a species. The judges must understand this idea to help them determine which group presents the best argument. The debate groups must use the information they find to formulate and defend their arguments. I only provide students with one full day to conduct their research. Middle school students will take as long as possible to complete any task and no matter if they are given a day or a week, the same amount of work seems to get done. Keeping the timeline tight helps students make the most of the time they have and keeps them focused on the task.  

I then provide students another full day to work as a large group to put together their strongest arguments and counter arguments. During this time, students will select one member of the group to serve as the lead spokesperson for the group and that person will choose another member to serve as their "number two" who will support and assist them during the debate. One or both of these people will be the only members of the group allowed to speak during the actual debate. Allowing the lead speaker to have someone by their side works to make this process a little less intimidating for students who might be uncomfortable addressing the group on their own.

Finally, I provide students with one final day to practice presenting their arguments with other group members acting as the other side. Practice for this type of activity, especially with this age group, is important if students are going to give a presentation that sounds as though they know what they are talking about.

The format that I follow is as follows:

  • 1-3 minute opening statement - Pro
  • 1-3 minute opening statement - Con
  • 5 minute whole group "conference" to prepare for rebuttal
  • 1-3 minute rebuttal- Pro
  • 1-3 minute rebuttal - Con
  • 5 minute whole group "conference" to prepare for response
  • 1-3 minute response - Pro
  • 1-3 minute response - Con
  • 4 minute whole group "conference" to prepare for summary 
  • 1 minute summary statement - Pro
  • 1 minute summary statement - Con
  • 5 minutes for judges to ask questions of both sides
  • 2-3 minutes for judges to make and present final judgement

I choose this format as it forces all students to pay attention/take notes about what each side is saying so they can participate in the whole group conference and allows those students that are too shy to be the main speaker the opportunity to share their thoughts in a low risk manner.

It is important to lay some ground rules prior to beginning the actual debate. 

  1. Be positive - no put downs allowed
  2. Pay attention - take notes on what is being said and jot questions you wonder during the presentation.  It might be easier to assign part of the group with note taking and part of the group with writing questions as having a single focus is easier than trying to do multiple things at once
  3. Be respectful - don't interrupt the speaker, you will have your turn to talk - hold your thoughts until the appropriate time

You may need to add or alter these rules to fit the culture and kids in your class but these work for me. I provide the judges each with a copy of the Debate Rubric to use to determine their final judgement. Sometimes I use their findings as the grade for the group, sometimes I complete the same rubric for the grade and sometimes I average the judges score with my score. I don't find any one way better than the other and, most of the time, there is no significant difference between the scores.

The following videos provide an idea on how I structured this during class.  I think it is important to note that grade level students, as these are, have had no prior experience with any form of debate. 

Statement of the main arguments:

Rebuttle 1:

Note: students in this class were very uncomfortable being filmed and it is when I put the camera down that they stated some high quality ideas or questions. At one point a student brought up that in order to really answer this question we need to define "human". This video shows their answer to this question that we then built upon.

After a deeper discussion on these definitions and how they applied to many non-human species, the class ended up determining that humanity = civilized. With this definition, our redesigned humans are indeed human, however, under the science definition on creation of a new species (from the warm-up video) they are not human. Ultimately the class decided they are not human but that is not a bad thing - they are just a new species (I wonder how many of them have seen X-Men...).


5 minutes

To get a feel for what students thought of this activity, I ask them to write one idea they will take away from this experience (something they will not soon forget) and one suggestion for improving this activity.  I have students complete this on a post it they can put on the wall as they are leaving.