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Gender and Sexuality in the High School Biology Classroom: Fostering Critical Thinking and Active Engagement

chelseam's picture

    Gender and Sexuality in the High School Biology Classroom:

Fostering Critical Thinking and Active Engagement


Summary: This project was undertaken with the hope of changing the ways we think about teaching and engaging with science. This paper will discuss ways to help students recognize that science is interdisciplinary and can both affect and be affected by the social and/or political context it exists in.  

By asking students to think about the way science is presented and conducted, and giving them the tools to think about science not as an isolated body of information, but as a dynamic and shifting discipline, we will not only be encouraging more engaged science scholarship, but will also help students begin to notice the ways science is used as evidence in different contexts and evaluate these uses.


The goals of this project are two-fold. I hope to suggest ways for biology teachers:

  1. To give high school biology students tools with which they can engage with and critically examine scientific literature – in textbooks, scientific studies, or popular science articles in the media.
  2. To introduce biology to high school students in a way that recognizes diversity as more than an inconvenient problem of categorization and illuminates the interdisciplinary nature of science.


Why These Objectives Matter:

Throughout my education, science has been presented more or less as a set of neat categories and facts, or at the very least – as a quest for an objective truth. There is a fairly extensive body of writing on science education that suggests this experience is common in basic science curriculum. This style of teaching science and the impression it gives to students is problematic for several reasons. First, it implies that science somehow stands alone, completely free of bias or influence/implications for the social context it exists in. Second, it encourages students to approach science mechanically – memorizing facts and ways of completing problems, rather than thinking about how to practice science in new and dynamic ways.

Arguably the most valuable part of studying science comes from understanding its applications and implications for society. Students need to be given the tools to interact with science in their every day life and be able to critically examine the way scientific research is presented by popular media and researchers themselves


The approach to this lesson is rooted in the premise that we need to examine the ways we not only teach, but also learn science. In her book Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences, Rebecca Jordan-Young writes, “Most books set out to answer questions. This book sets out to question answers” (Jordan-Young, ix). A similar approach needs to be introduced into the high school biology class room in order to encourage critical thinking and interaction with biology. In my view, one of the keys to the success of this lesson is emphasizing that we are not trying to discount science, but rather examine the way it is done and how it interacts with the world it exists in. As Jordan-Young says, “this is not an ‘antiscience’ book and it’s also not an ‘antidifference’ book” – the same should be true in this lesson.

 “Rather than continuing to point this out as though good science can and should be purged of contaminating social factors, science and technology studies over the past few decades have focused on illuminating how social or practical factors are woven into the practice of science.”  (Jordan-Young, 10) 

The second objective of this lesson targets the way we present biology to high school students. It is crucial that high school biology touches on the enormous diversity that exists in nature, so that students have a foundation from which to think about and critique debates on nature vs nurture. Giving students a broader understanding of diversity in biology will give them concrete examples of behaviors or methods of reproduction/ sex differentiation that do not fit a traditional binary. Having this broader understanding of biological diversity will help students be better able to consider research/media assumptions related to categorization (of sex, sexual behavior, etc), and also begin to consider different ways of asking questions. Presenting students with examples of difference in biology helps break down the notion that science is a static set of facts and categories and helps students begin seeing making connections between the way we “frame” science, and the way research is conducted and interpreted. By teaching diversity and showing the “leakiness” of some of the categories we apply to biology, we suggest the possibility of different categories or frames through which we can seek to explain the world.

 Gender/Sexuality Studies as a Framework

This lesson is designed to work towards the two objective defined above in the context of gender and sexuality studies. Research surrounding gender and sexuality abounds in both scientific and social science/ humanities research. The field presents a critical junction between the scientific and the social – though as this lesson suggests, it is unclear that the two can ever be completely separated from one another. Gender and sexuality studies provide an excellent framework for working towards these goals because they are extremely relevant to social/political discourse in the United States today and the conclusions that students form about these issues have potentially huge implications for the future of our society. It is important that students are given the tools to form informed and thoughtful conclusions, and to see the overlap between the scientific and the social.


Objective 1: Building Tools for Scientific Literacy and Engagement

“Science Curriculum both encourages critical thinking and threatens it”  – Lynn Hankinson Nelson


Sample Lesson Plan 

Learning Goal: Students should become able to critically read articles about science and science literature, with an eye for assumptions made by the author/researcher and the validity of the conclusions that have been drawn. 

Students will be able to demonstrate their learning, by completing a final assignment for this class in which they work closely with a piece of scientific literature and write two newspaper articles that draw significantly different conclusions for the research.  This project should be evaluated on the students’ ability to identify critical assumptions made in the research and discuss their validity, to think about potential logical gaps in the research or areas that do not seem clear to them, and most importantly to put two different “spins” on the article that demonstrate that the student sees that scientific evidence can be interpreted differently and is often deeply connected to the social/political climate.


Overview of Lesson: This lesson assumes that these students have not been given the opportunity to engage deeply with science literature or think critically about the ways it is conducted and is interpreted. In order to bring students to a place where they can form their own conclusions about the validity of pieces of scientific research and the conclusions scientists and others draw from them, this lesson will: 1) Discuss scientific research in a historical context and think about how time has changed the lens through which we interpret this evidence (specifically surrounding issues of race, class and gender), and 2) Engage with current research conducted surrounding gender and/or sexuality to think about the way scientific research is affected and affects our current social and political climate.


1. Introductory Discussion and Brainstorm: How do we think about Science?

Purpose: Get the students thinking about the way they view and learn science. Also a good opportunity for the teacher to get a sense of the current way the students interact with science.


Description: Ask students for adjectives describing science. Is it objective, static, rapidly changing? How does science digger from other academic disciplines (in the way it is taught? In what it seeks to explain?) 


It may be helpful to create a visual representation of this brainstorm, so that students can begin to identify and discuss recurring themes or surprising outliers.


2. Lecture: Providing Historical Context for this Discussion – How have societal changes impacted the way we interpret science? Examples of Race, Class, Gender


Note: I hope in a future extension of this project, to go into more details about the ways science has been read historically as having important implications for race/class/gender/sexuality. For now, I will briefly outline a few examples and suggest resources for additional research that can be consulted before giving this lecture.


Purpose: Use the history of science in the United States to highlight the ways that our cultural lens can affect the ways we conduct and interpret science. Prepare students to extend this attention to cultural/social/political lenses and their implications to the present day – particularly in the context of Gender and Sexuality.


1. Biological Determinism: The interpretation and explanation of human behavior and life from a strictly biological perspective.


Implications of this type of approach:

-Eugenics: Applying concepts of “Selection” to biological determinism  in an effort to “improve the gene pool.” In countries such as the U.S. and Nazi Germany, the government attempted to regulate reproduction and/or kill people deemed genetically inferior.

            -During 1900’s in US: Sterilization of mentally ill, identification of "criminal phenotypes"

 Eugenics Articles:

I have linked New York Times articles from the period when these sciences were viewed very differently from today. These articles could serve as a jumping off point for discussion of how science has changed and how other factors impact science.

                                                              1937 New York Times  

1937 “Eugenics is Urged to Lengthen Life”



1927 “Courses in Eugenics Increase in Colleges of this Country”


1951 “Confirming Popular Notion That There Is a 'Banker Type' and an 'Artist Type' of Man”


2. Sociobiology by Edward O. Wilson 1975



One of the first textbooks that attempted to use biology to almost completely explain human behavior and divisions of class, race, sex. Quotes from this book can provide interesting discussion of the way that science can be used in academic texts in addition to the mass media.


Quotes for class discussion:

“The homosexual state itself results in inferior genetic fitness, because of course homosexual men marry much less frequently and have far fewer children than their unambiguously heterosexual counterparts” (Wilson, 555)

“The time has come for ethics to be removed from the hands of philosophers and be biologicized” (Wilson, 562)


“The building block of nearly all human societies is the nuclear family…During the day the women and children remain in the residential area while men forage for game…or money” (Wilson, 554)


“The best and most entrepreneurial of the role-actors usually gain a disproportionate share of the rewards, while the least successful are displaced to other less desirable positions” (Wilson, 554)


“Genetic differences in mental traits, however slight, tend to be preserved by the raising of class barriers” (Wilson 555)


3. Ask the students what is different about our current cultural lens that makes us read these texts differently. Do you think the cultural context shaped the way these scientists performed their research?  Is it possible for science to be objective?

-Important to make clear in this discussion, that we are not trying to denounce science altogether, but to think about how to responsibly use and do science.


3. Take-Home Assignment: Working with scientific research surrounding issues of Gender/Sexuality – Write about the research and two brief articles “spinning” the research differently


Purpose: Give students the opportunity to apply what they have learned in this lesson to contentious scientific issues of the current day. Using the case study of gender/sexuality research, students will be able to demonstrate their ability to critically engage with research, anticipate its potential implications/interpretations, and think about the validity of these implications. From the teachers perspective, this assignment provides a way to evaluate the degree to which the lesson’s “learning goal” was reached by the students.


Part 1: Choosing and Discussing Original Research


Have students find a piece of relatively straight forward research on an issue related to gender and/or sexuality. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) database is a good place to start.


Here is an example of  a newspaper article and study with interesting potential implications:


“Up the Career Ladder, Lipstick in Hand” NY Times October, 2011


“Cosmetics as a Feature of the Extended Human Phenotype: Modulation of the Perception of Biologically Important Facial Signals”


Here are some sample studies:


“Sex-related similarities and differences in the neural correlates of beauty”


“Sex differences in the neural basis of emotional memories”


“Brain Response to putative pheromones in lesbian women”


Give students a list of questions to answer about the research they are dealing with.

Potential Questions:

  1. Summarize the study. What did the researchers do? What was their hypothesis? What conclusions did they draw?
  2. How did the researchers define the categories in this study?
  3. What assumptions were critical to this research?
  4. Were these assumptions and definitions valid? Why or why not?
  5. Do you agree with the conclusions drawn from the data?
  6. Do the researchers appear to have any biases that affect the way they have conducted the study? What biases might I bring to this study?


Part 2: Spin the Research!


Have your students write two newspaper articles about this research.  Encourage them to have fun with it, but also ground the articles in the research. These articles should interpret the data in two significantly different ways (they don’t need to be opposite or mutually exclusive). Get the students thinking about the way science is presented to us in the media and the importance of understanding the source of this information.



Objective 2: Challenging Binaries - Introducing Diversity into the Discussion of Reproduction, Sexual Behavior, and Sex Determination

Sample Lesson Plan 


Learning Goal: Start to get students thinking about the enormous diversity in sexual behavior, reproduction, and sex differentiation in nature.  Help them see that the picture generally presented in biology textbooks is only the tip of the iceberg.

Overview of Lesson: This lesson plan is built off the introductory biology textbook Essential Cell Biology 3rd edition. However, I suggest that you model it off of the way the textbook used in your class deals with issues surrounding sexual behavior, sex determination, and reproduction. This grounds the lesson in a text the students are familiar with, making it feel more structured, but allows you to go beyond the material covered in the textbook and gives students an idea of the breadth of material not traditionally covered in introductory biology.

 1. Sex Differentiation

 “A typical human somatic cell contains two of each of these chromosomes, plus two sex chromosomes – two X chromosomes in a female, one X and one Y in a male.” (180)”

 “They each contain only one set of chromosomes. Typically, only two types of gametes are produced” (652)

Human Exceptions:  There is a range of phenotypic expression of sex in humans that goes beyond the traditional male/female binary.

Intersex: “A variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.” (Intersex Society of North America)

Kinefelter Syndrome: XXY males. 1/500 to 1/1000 male births – fairly common. Usually phenotypically male. Result of nondisjunction during meiosis II (this is an event that high school biology students will be able to understand and connect to their understanding of meiosis).


Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome: Individuals are XY, but body does not respond to androgen. Testes develop during gestation, but develops phenotypically as a female.


Some examples in other species:

Physarum polycephalum (slime mold) has over 500 sexes (Judson, 197)


Green Spoon Worm:  Have no sex at birth, sex is determined during first days. If encounters a female in early days, becomes male. If after 3 weeks it does not encounter a female, will become female. To reproduce, males are inhaled into a chamber in female reproductive tract called the androecium (“small man room”). Males are 200,000 times smaller than females. (Judson, 200). 


Birds: Have Z and W chromosomes. Male birds are ZZ and female birds are WZ (this also occurs in some fish, crustaceans, and reptiles). The Z chromosome is larger and carries more genes than the W.



2. Sexual Reproduction and Behavior


“Sexual reproduction gives organisms a competitive advantage” (654)


Humans: Though humans reproduce sexually, the sexual behavior of humans varies greatly between individuals. Similar diversity can be found in other species as well.


Exceptions: Asexual reproduction is favorable when organisms are in isolated environment


Examples of Asexual Reproduction:

Female Hammerhead Sharks: Can undergo parthenogenisis – egg cell develops as an embryo without the addition of genetic material from a male sperm cell. Also can reproduce sexually. ( )




Whiptail Lizards: American Southwest and Hawaii. Clonally reproduce, but also have elaborate courtship process. – mate in similar fashion to male/female whiptail mating All female species. Develop alternating hormonal cycles and switch roles in copulation. (Roughgarden)



Bighorn Sheep: Almost all males engage in copulation and courtship with other males – some do not engage in mating with females. (Roughgarden)


Bonobo Monkeys: 

“Because same-sex matings can be as common as between-sex matings, the geometry of the genitals may be shaped to promote same-sex contact as well as between-sex contact” (Roughgarden, 138)


1999 Study (Bagemihl – Biological Exuberance) found same-sex coupling in over 100 species (Roughgarden) 


3. Why is this diversity important?

Have students reflect on the implications of this type of diversity on the way we perceive human gender and sexuality. Is there a clear binary between male and female? Does the variety of sexual behavior in animals change the way we perceive similar diversity in our own species? Should it?

Thoughts from Roughgarden’s book Evolution’s Rainbow may serve as good conversation starters.

 “Scientists are professionally responsible for refuting claims that homosexuality is unnatural” (Roughgarden, 128)

  "I also do not suggest that people are directly comparable to animals....Parallels can sometimes be drawn between how people behave and how animals behave, as though animals offered biological cultures resembling ours...Not that animals are really like people, but animals are not just machines either." (Roughgarden, 4).

Ask students to reflect either in writing or verbally on these statement in connection with diversity presented. Do they agree? What do they find problematic? What are the implications of these statements? Try to emphasize the critical thinking skills from Objective 1, encourage them to wrestle with these ideas and come to own conclusions.



While by no means a comprehensive guide to fostering critical thinking about science in the classroom, I hope that this project can serve as a jumping off point for educators to think about and discuss the way we approach science in the classroom. Scientific literacy and the ability to grapple with the evidence presented to us has important social, political, and environmental implications not only in the realm of gender and sexuality, but also in the study of climate change, medical research and more. Helping students develop the tools to think critically about the way science is done and used, is a critical component of developing citizens who are able to think autonomously and creatively about the connections between science and society.


Works Cited


Alberts, Bruce. Essential Cell Biology. 3rd ed. New York, [N.Y.: Garland Science, 2010. Print.

Hankinson Nelson, Lynn. "Critical Science Scholarship: Beyond Androcentrism." Creating an Inclusive College Curriculum: a Teaching Sourcebook from the New Jersey Project. New York: Teachers College, 1996. 90-99. Print.

Jordan-Young, Rebecca M. Brain Storm: the Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2010. Print.

Judson, Olivia. Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation. New York: Metropolitan, 2002. Print.

Roughgarden, Joan. Evolution's Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People. Berkeley: University of California, 2004. Print.

Wilson, Edward O. Sociobiology: the New Synthesis. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 1975. Print.


Additional Resources

Asma, Stephen T. "Gauging Gender - The Chronicle Review - The Chronicle of Higher Education." The Chronicle of Higher Education. 30 Oct. 2011. Web. 02 Nov. 2011. <>.

Gould, Stephen Jay. The Mismeasure of Man. New York: Norton, 1981. Print.

Grobstein, Paul. "Science as "Getting It Less Wrong"" Serendip. 29 Dec. 2000. Web. 28 Oct. 2011. </sci_cult/truth.html>

Lederman, Muriel, and Ingrid Bartsch. The Gender and Science Reader. London: Routledge, 2001. Print.

Kirkup, Gill, and Laurie S. Keller. Inventing Women: Science, Technology, and Gender. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 1992. Print.

Marks, Jonathan. The Alternative Introduction to Biological Anthropology. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. Print.

Spanier, Bonnie. Im/partial Science: Gender Ideology in Molecular Biology. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995. Print.

Suggs, David N., and Andrew W. Miracle. Culture, Biology, and Sexuality. Athens: University of Georgia, 1999. Print.

Wightman, Bruce. "A Better Rationale for Science Literacy - The Chronicle Review - The Chronicle of Higher Education." The Chronicle of Higher Education. 30 Oct. 2011. Web. 01 Nov. 2011. <>.


Anne Dalke's picture

Critical alliances?

you've done a TON of work in putting together this together (thanks, too, for all the illustrative images!...I'm also tickled by what I assume is a technical glitch, the way your line about "how social or practical factors are woven into the practice of science" runs off the page....very evocative for the expansive vision you're advocating! ). The project you've taken on seems even more imperative to me, now that Karen Barad has asked us to consider the difference between "science and justice" and "science and ethics" (remember her saying that thinking about "elsi" = the ethical/legal/social implications of science = the implications of work after it leaves the lab) is too little too late?

In fact, in light of that notion, I'd nudge you to take what you say here -- that "arguably the most valuable part of studying science comes from understanding its applications and implications for society"--a little farther. Rather than studying the implications of scientific understanding, after the results come out, think about interrogating the very structuring of the experiments @ the outset.... One way to do this might be not only to have the students do what you focus on here--"choosing and discussing Original Research"--but also by getting them to conduct some original research of their own. The bio labs @ BMC have been experimenting w/ all sorts of innovative ways to do this: they've gotten rid of textbooks altogether, and most of the labs are about having students make their own observations (rather than replicate or report out on the work of others).

What I like about your project is the early intervention it implies (and it gets me thinking about even-earlier ones: what are children's first experiences of science? how to make them more exploratory, less dogmatic? how to give them, early on, an experience of science as always-revising and critiquing itself?). Another thing I like is the historical framework you provide--warming the students up to think about current gen/sex debates by teaching them first about biological determinism and sociobiology.

A few more reactions:

"Gender and sexuality studies provide an excellent framework for working towards these goals because they are extremely relevant to social/political discourse in the United States today"--yes, and they also provide a good framework because everyone--and especially highschoolers!--are interesting in sex and gender. So you are beginning where the students are, and working out into large social issues.

"I hope in a future extension of this project, to go into more details about the ways science has been read historically as having important implications for race/class/gender/sexuality"--particularly useful here might be Stephen G. Gould's historical critique, The Mismeasure of Man.

“Science Curriculum both encourages critical thinking and threatens it” --what does this quote mean? What's the threat? (I get that encouraging critical thinking threatens settled habits of mind, but not that it threatens critical thinking....)

* Finally, I'm wondering about your overall goal--of using this curriculum to create "citizens who are able to think autonomously"--in light of current swirl of philosophy on campus: Judith Butler's asking us to think in terms of coalitional frameworks and unexpected alliances, and the more profound invitation of Karen Barad to recognize that "we are part of that nature we seek to understand," that "the intra-action of an organism and its environment is a phenomenon that cannot be separated out." Where, then, autonomy?