Don’t be put off by the title! “Let’s write non-fiction” is a series of Children’s BBC programmes. Some episodes are very much about the craft of writing, but this one focuses on the science of cloning as a topic on which students could write. I was surprised by how good the content actually was. The style is a bit “Newsround-y” and so this will limit the relevance to University students, but would be very useful with Secondary students. The programme has been transmitted a number of times, but readers with access to the British Universities Film and Video Council archive could order a copy – the TRILT access code is 005722FC.
As a counterpoint to the Nature podcast on the outcome of the fabricated data by Hwang Woo-Suk, the Centre for Bioethics and Human Dignity offers this alternative view on the implications of the faked work for the stem cell field. “The real lesson of the Korean cloning scandal” is a 10 minute podcast presented by Do No Harm: The Coalition for Research Ethics. A transcript of the podcast can be found at http://www.cbhd.org/resources/cloning/donoharm_2006-03-10.htm and the audio track can be reached from that page.
At the end of June 2006, Nature published an hour-long stem cell special (in addition to their weekly podcast). Although rather advanced for recommending directly to secondary level students, it may serve as a useful primer for you and/or for university students. Both the audio file and a transcript are available free from http://www.nature.com/nature/podcast/index.html , look down the list for the June 28th 2006 edition.
(Warning: contains story spoilers!) The Island looks into a near future (the year 2019 is specified) where it has become possible for the rich and famous, including top sportsmen and the US President, to have a clone of themselves made as an ‘insurance policy’. The clients are led to believe that the clones (aka Agnates) are kept in a permanent vegetative state, but this is not true. The clones, which are made using an accelerated development system, are, in fact, awake and carry out certain jobs. They are told that they are survivors after a catastrophic accident and have to live indoors, unless they win the lottery and with it the chance to move to the contamination-free Island. This is a cover story to explain their sudden disappearance when their organs need to be harvested for the sponsor. The film focusses on an escape by two clones, Lincoln 6 Echo (Ewan McGregor) and Jordan 2 Delta (Scarlett Johansson), who go in search of their sponsors after Lincoln discovers the truth about what it means to win a move to “The Island”.
The film can be a useful vehicle for discussing human cloning. For example, you could get the students to compare and contrast the cloning depicted in the film with the science and current legislation of both therapeutic and reproductive cloning.
The film is a certificate 12, so there are few problems content-wise in showing the whole thing to any secondary or university group. However, some scenes in isolation (supported by a little background from the teacher) are sufficient to serve as a case study. In particular Chapter 17 “Why do they lie to us?” (0:59:02 to 1:02:43) is very good – nb includes one use of ‘shitty’. Also Chapter 7 (0:23:00 to 0:26:00) depicts an adult ‘birth’; Chapter 14 (0:48:30 to 0:51:50) the sales pitch to potential customers about the limitations of human life and a statement that the Agnates are “products, not human”; Chapter 15 (0:52:50 to 0:54:05) where we are told that Jordan 2 Delta’s sponsor is dying; Chapter 30 (1:43:45 to 1:45:50) “How many are affected?” and Chapter 33 (1:54:40 to 1:55:33) “When did killing become a business for you?”
Stem cells are obviously one of the hottest topics of the moment and offer one of the best ways to link current news stories to the teaching of bioethics. Which story will be most useful? The BBC are very helpfully providing an increasing amount of their news footage online via their News Player service. The image on the streamed video is not really of sufficiently high quality to show to a class or lecture room directly, but you may add a link from, for example, a virtual learning environment and require students to take a look themselves. The streamed clips are certainly a good way of refreshing your own knowledge on the subject.
To find what is available just go to www.bbc.co.uk/tv and put “stem cells” (or whatever else you want) into the search box. The results are now divided between website hits and video and audio hits. As a startpoint, I recommend Susan Watts’ excellent piece from Newsnight on 9th Feb 2006 (mislabelled 10th Feb 2006 in the index). This 15 minute item reviews the state of stem cell research (embryonic and adult) in the aftermath of the Hwang cloning scandal and includes a good roundup of the different sorts of work being done.
Whilst on the subject of streamed media, there is a very useful tool available on the University of Groningen website. The Virtual Cutter (http://video.surfnet.nl/info/webstroom/english/artikel_content.jsp?objectnumber=29509) allows you to select a specific shorter extract from a streamed video. Using this online software, you can specify the startpoint and the endpoint of the clip you want to use, which is then gets given a unique URL. The clever thing is that you are not making a copy – the full item remains in its original location, but you can use the generated URL to link to just the section you want from a different webpage. Instructions are in English or Dutch (other languages are promised).
Pig-Heart Boy is the fictional account of Cameron, a thirteen year old boy who takes part in a pioneering operation to receive a pig’s heart. An excellent and thought provoking story by Malorie Blackman (Corgi Books, ISBN 0552551663), it was also made into a TV serial in the UK. As you might guess from the age of the principal character, this resource works best for secondary rather than university students. This is particularly true for the TV version. There are, however, several short sections of the book that could be read out as a scene-setter for any age group. I particularly like the three and a half page section from the start of Chapter 3, where Cameron overhears his parents arguing about the operation (the first he knows about it) to the point where he storms upstairs and declares to himself “How dare they? It was my body. My heart”.
The equivalent section occurs in episode 1 of the TV version (‘The D word’). The text is altered somewhat, but has the advantage that it cuts straight into the family going to visit Professor Rae, the xenotransplantation expert. Hence the 5 minute clip from 14:30 to 19:14 would make a very useful and thought-provoking intro to the topic.
The episode “Kenny Dies”, the last in Season 5 of South Park, features some surprisingly helpful discussion of stem cells. The most user-friendly section is a 90 second clip when Cartman goes to visit the Alder Research Group to find out what stem cells are all about. You should be warned that, this clip aside, most of the programme is unsuitable for use with School groups and many older student groups are likely to include individuals who will be offended by much of the content. Readers with access to the British Universities Film and Video Council (BUFVC) archive should ask for the TRILT identifier 00186929.