A liberal arts education offers many varied opportunities to develop skills in critical thinking and nowhere more so than in Assistant Professor of Biology Natalie Nannas’ Bioethics course. Addressing topics that include stem cell therapy, predicting criminality, abortion, data privacy, and direct-to-consumer genetic testing, to name a few, students are challenged to create 10- to 15-minute podcasts that explain and evaluate multiple facets and possibilities of each current issue.
Combining their own research and input solicited from experts in the field, students were tasked with presenting their subjects in a manner accessible to the general public. In this fall semester course, experts included three alumni and three faculty members along with professors from other academic institutions. The alumni were Thomas "Tom" Ducibella '69, a retired professor of cell biology at Tufts University School of Medicine and an expert in invitro fertilization; Alice Popejoy ’09, a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University and an expert in human genomic medicine and ancestry; and Alfred Slanetz '84, an expert in t-cell therapies in cancer treatment and CEO of Geneius Biotechnology, Inc. In addition to Nannas, the professors included Assistant Professor of Biology Rhea Datta and Assistant Professor of Psychology Keelah Williams.
“Most of our classes were discussion-based so I was able to hear my classmates’ opinions … It was great because I was exposed to different perspectives,” said biology major Kat Craine. She worked with her partner Pat Morelli on a podcast on physician aid in dying (PAD) and noted that in most biology classes, there isn’t much opportunity for debate. Because every student was assigned two debates in the ethics class, “I learned how to persuade my audience and appeal to emotion, to grab their attention,” she said.
And her experience in conducting an interview for the podcast was memorable. “I realized that it’s easy to build a deep connection with a complete stranger. I interviewed a woman, whose mother used PAD to end her life after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She described the physical and emotional toll that she and her family endured. I could hear the agony and despair in her voice. During the interview, I got a little choked up because I could feel her pain. It is something that I will never forget,” Craine said.
The seed for this course was a $2,500 Experiential Learning Award received by Nannas to support experiential learning via projects and to facilitate student interaction with experts in the field. “I wouldn’t have done this class project without the award. I wouldn’t have thought so creatively or expansively,” said Nannas. “The grant allowed me to bring experts in reproductive medicine, medical ethics, stem cells, and human genomic medicine and ancestry to visit the course during the semester.”
Student learning was not confined to their selected topics but also spanned issues related to podcast production. Planning for the course began in the summer with the Research and Instructional Design Team in Burke Library. Students were instructed by that group as well as by Amy Gaffney in the Oral Communications Center throughout the semester on copyright issues, script development, verbal delivery and diction, editing, and software use including Zoom and Adobe Audition. Students addressed the challenges of drawing out responses from their identified experts that would be helpful to their presentations.
At the conclusion of the class, Nannas conducted a listening session with the entire class so they could appreciate the breadth of each other’s work and evaluate their varied approached to their topics.
As this course has evolved, Nannas has had some surprises along the way. She first taught this class in the fall of 2017. “We were discussing in vitro fertilization (IVF), a topic that I considered far less controversial than topics we have addressed in this semester’s course,” Nannas explained. By happenstance, both an IVF triplet and a student who had been adopted were members of the class. What ensued was an unexpected, but respectful debate between the two students on the merits of IVF versus adoption.
Nannas said that her students “learn a lot of science” while also learning “how to explain it to others.” Not only were their podcasts presented in the last class but to a wider audience on the College’s radio station in December.