Stem cell research debated in CentreTerm course
RELEASED: January 17, 2008
In a typical college course the professor would teach the facts regarding stem cells—how they function, the methods of manipulation and the medical advancements they've provided. But in his CentreTerm course "Stem Cells, Cloning, and You," Asmus encourages his students to look at the larger picture. Is it ethical, for example, to sacrifice an embryo to harvest embryonic stem cells or create genetic twins in the lab?
"In most of my science courses, we don't have the time to cover non-science/ethical issues, nor are many of the topics in my other courses controversial," Asmus says. "Voltage-gated sodium channels haven't generated much controversy lately!"
There are many perspectives from which to view the issue, but Asmus doesn't align with any of them in the classroom. "At the end of the course, I hope that students can address the question 'What are the (scientific) facts?' regarding embryo research and alternative
But there's a larger goal, as well. Asmus wants his students "to improve their ability to frame a rational argument about a controversial issue."
His class functions as a crossroad for philosophy and science and attracts a variety of students, though the principle audience is largely of a scientific background. For them, the course is more than a passing interest: it serves as forum for understanding the ethical implications they may encounter in their future research.
"I'm really interested in going to medical school, as well as in the ethical aspects of research," Emily Gregory '11 says. "I'm learning that not everything is black and white in this issue. I have my opinion about stem cell research, and I'm learning both scientific and religious arguments to back it up, but I'm also realizing that many other opinions come into play when talking about something so revolutionary, and dangerous if mishandled."
Perhaps what makes the class so difficult, and at the same time interesting, is that "the science can be used to both support and condemn stem cell research," Asmus says. As a result, he doesn't grade what side of the argument his students present, but rather how they present their arguments.
"I've given good grades to papers supporting the research and good grades to papers that don't," he says. "It's not my responsibility to tell them what to think, but instead help them create an argument that uses the science in a responsible and logical fashion."
For Asmus and his students, the most interesting questions are sometimes the ones science can't answer. The challenge then becomes, Asmus says, how do we go about regulating stem cell research in a radically divided sea of individual perspectives? And Asmus hopes his students will be able to answer that question a little better by the end of his CentreTerm course.
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Founded in 1819, Centre College is ranked among the U.S. News top 50 national liberal arts colleges. Consumers Digest ranks Centre No. 1 in educational value among all U.S. liberal arts colleges. Centre alumni, known for their nation-leading loyalty in annual financial support, include two U.S. vice presidents and two Supreme Court justices. For more, visit http://www.centre.edu/web/elevatorspeech/
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