Bioethics (Portobello Colegio and the UCSF Biosensor)

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Lesson Overview


This activity introduces students to ethics and bioethics. Bioethics concerns some of the more difficult dilemmas and decisions facing scientists as science advances, particilarly in the field of Cellular Engineering which strives, in part, to make new forms of life capable of solving problems for humankind. Students are given a bioethical case study in which high school students in rural Panama want to use a bacterial biosensor in their community to detect lead contaminants in their water supply. 

This activity was adapted from the NIH Curriculum Supplement: Exploring Bioethics.  To download the entire curriculum, visit

For editable worksheets and powerpoints please login here.

Big Idea(s)

Ethics concerns what we “should” do, not what we legally have to do or what we’d prefer to do, although often those three things overlap.

There are four principles of ethics: respecting autonomy, harms and benefits, fairness, authenticity.

Ethical questions can have the four principles at odds with one another, such that a solution that satisfies one principle might violate another.

Often ethical questions don’t have a “right” answer, or an “easy” answer.

Bioethics is a category of ethics concerned with ethical issues that arise from life science research.

Cellular Engineering research has many bioethical issues as this field could potentially create new organisms that could have lasting effects on humans and the environment.

Vocabulary words









  • Tough questions (ethical question prompts) Virtual Worksheet
  • Bioethical Case Study Virtual Worksheet
  • NIH Curriculum Supplement: Exploring Bioethics, Module 1



Groups of 3-4 students

For some activities, students will work in pairs


2 hours

5 min – Intro

30 min – Tough questions

25 min – Background on ethics

1 hour – Bioethics Case Study

Prerequisites for students

Students should have some background on bacterial biosensors to be able to properly engage with the bioethical case study.  Please see “Intro to Bacterial Biosensors” for lesson ideas to introduce bacterial biosensors to students.

Learning goals/objectives for students
  • Introduce students to the field of ethics
  • Develop understanding of ethics as a framework to guide research decisions
  • Build ethical considerations into conversations about science
Content background for instructor

Ethics concerns what a person should do, or the best course of action, and provides an explanation of those choices. It uses as a guideline an idea of how to better treat others and what types of communities and societies we would like to live in.  Bioethics is a subfield of ethics, and concerns how governments, organizations, and communities should best apply advancements of science for the good of humankind.

More background content can be found at:

The bioethics case study deals with bacterial biosensors.  Bacteria are single-celled organisms with a small amount of genetic code in the form of DNA, some of that DNA present in small loops called plasmids. Scientists have learned how to co-opt these plasmids to alter bacterial behavior and function to create a new bacteria that can solve problems facing humankind.  Below are a few sources about the production of human insulin, one of the first proteins manufactured using this method:

(Note: the above sources are likely too complex for the average high school student and instead serve to give you solid foundational knowledge of the technology).

In the case study, UCSF scientist have genetic transformation to make a slightly more complex engineered bacteria.  Instead of just one gene, a biosensor generally has at least two: one gene that senses an environmental cue (in this case lead), and one gene that acts to report that the environmental cue has been sensed (in this case changing the color of the bacteria, similar to the glowing cats in the second video above).  Additionally, the UCSF scientists have created a “device” or container for the bacterial biosensors.  This device isolates the bacteria from the outside world (preventing the bacteria from escaping into local waterways), but allows the water to be tested to come in contact with the bacteria. Similarly designed devices can be found in the articles below:

The case study is fictional, but is based on real people and locations. The local colegio in Portobello, Panama has an impressive, nationally recognized STEM program which regularly engages with the citizens of Portobello to develop community based projects.  The community of Portobello has faced real issues with water contamination in the past few years.  Read more about the colegio and their community-based engineering projects at the link below:


Lesson Implementation/Outline


(5 mins)

It is a good idea to start the bioethics activities by adding a few norms. Discussions involving ethics can get heated as many hold strong ethical beliefs.  Here are a few suggestions:


  • Challenge ideas, not people
  • Offer your idea even if it’s unpopular (It helps the community learn more)
  • Listen to all ideas respectfully, even unpopular ideas
  • Be aware of body language and non-verbal cues (They can be just as disrespectful as words)

Tough Questions: (30 mins)

Start with the tough questions without much framework. Most people have an idea of ethics, without it being defined. Allow groups to discuss one of the following questions and have each share out (Use the Tough Questions Virtual Worksheet):

  • My boss gave me credit for a project on which a colleague did most of the work. Should I accept the praise?
  • If a charity sends me free address labels and I don’t make a contribution, is it OK to use them?
  • Is it considered stealing to take pens from a bank? What about extra napkins from a fast-food restaurant?
  • I live alone, I’m lonely, but my landlord doesn’t allow pets.  Is it ok for me to register an adopted dog as an emotional support animal so that I can keep it in my home?

Ask one student (chosen at random) to report out a few points discussed at their group. Take notes on what the students share. After each topic is discussed, ask for other questions or comments from the whole group.

Background on Ethics (30 mins):

Start by giving the students a definition of ethics:

Ethics seeks to determine what a person should do, or the best course of action, and provides reasons why.

It also helps people decide how to behave and treat one another, and what kinds of communities would be good to live in.

Go over the four fundamental principles of ethics. Use your notes from the last activity and try to use student answers from the “tough questions and classify them in the principles below:

  • Respecting autonomy – Never treating someone as a mere means to your own goals or ends. Two ways to show respect are enabling people to make their own choices and not undermining or disregarding those choices. For example, if one person’s organs could help five people live, it would be an ethical violation of respect for persons to kill that one person and distribute the organs to save the five who need them. Also enabling them to make their own choices, not interfering in their choices or ability to carry out those choices. Not just listening, but understanding, and not judging or belittling their points of view.
    • Example: Taking credit for your colleagues work might be considered not respecting their autonomy if we aren’t asking that colleague if it’s ok to accept the praise. Maybe they would like praise for their work, but if you ignore that, you are not respecting their autonomy.
  • Harms or benefits – Benefits are positive consequences, and harms are negative consequences. It is important to consider how one can minimize harms while maximizing benefits. This applies to both you, others, the community, the environment, etc.
    • Example: We talked about the degree to which we take pens or napkins. Partly we are considering whether we are harming the bank or the restaurant for our own benefit. What degree is that harm? What is the benefit to us?
  • Fairness – Ensuring that benefits, risks (harms), resources, and costs are distributed equitably. Equal = everyone gets the same thing, Equity = distributed based on each persons situation, history, access, etc.
    • Example: Accepting praise while not doing much work is not necessarily fair. We get more benefits while our colleague had the harms of the hours doing work. When we register an emotional support animal to get around our landlord’s restrictions on pets, are we playing fair or are we using a system designed to help people for something other than what it was intended?  Is it fair that landlords can control whether or not we can have pets?
  • Authenticity – Achieving a goal in a manner consistent with what is valued about the performance and seen as essential (or true) to its nature. Using a ladder to dunk a basketball is not authentic. I am doing the action necessary to score points in the game, but not in the way everyone agrees upon. (Could be breaking the rules or not).
    • Example: I’m not authentically representing my relationship to the charity by using their address labels. I’m not authentically in need of an emotional support animal, if I’m using that system solely to get around my landlord’s rules.

Bioethics Case Study (1 hour):

High school students in Portobello, Panama want to use the Bacterial Biosensor Device to test the water at the colegio. They also want to learn about cellular engineering as a tool to empower their own community. The colegio in Portobello, Panama has an excellent engineering program. The high school students have a history of engineering solutions for issues facing the colegio and the community of Portobello. For example, high school students built a water treatment rig for their high school, redesigned one of the town’s aqueduct, and continue to do public outreach and collect data on waterborne diseases. They are interested in the bacterial biosensor device to test their water, but also to learn about this new technology. They would like to empower their community to test their own water for lead and toluene on a regular basis.  To properly learn about bacterial biosensors, they need the entire genetic code of the plasmid from the UCSF cellular engineers.  

The UCSF Cellular Engineers developed a bacterial biosensor device to test water in the Bay Area for lead and toluene contaminates. The device is working well. They believe they can use the device to start a new biotech company. They are excited to have the colegio in Portobello use their device, as it will provide them with more data and proof of concept (demonstration that the device works to potential investors). They have filed for a patent on the design of the bacterial biosensor and the device that contains the bacteria. They don’t want to share the entire DNA code with the students at the colegio because they aren’t sure if they will be able to patent the DNA code. They are worried the DNA code will be leaked to the public allowing another company to steal their idea.

Portobelo is a small-but-growing town in rural Panama with a population of just over 4000 people.  Their community is surrounded by nature preserves and a harbor to the north. Two mountain streams that flow from the nature preserve into the harbor are the community’s main source of water. They have a history of water contamination from population growth, aging infrastructure, and runoff from upstream farming. This contamination has affected the health of residents. Community representatives are unsure about allowing students at the colegio to bring unknown and potentially dangerous organisms to their community.  If these bacteria are released into the water supply it could have devastating effects on their home and the surrounding natural environment.

Ask students to discussion (in their groups) one of the following bioethical questions (use the Bioethical Questions Virtual Worksheet):

  • Is it ok for the UCSF researchers to own the bacteria in the biosensor, even though it’s a living thing?
  • Is it fair for the UCSF engineers to ask the students to test the biosensor device at the school without giving them access to the bacteria’s DNA code?
  • Should the community of Portobelo have final say on whether the bacterial biosensor device is used at all?
  • What percent chance of device failure (i.e. releasing the bacteria into the water) is an acceptable level risk to justify using the biosensor device?

In your group:

  • Allow time for all group members to review background information about the case study
  • Discuss the bioethical question you are given
  • Can you come to a group consensus decision/answer about the question?
  • Be ready to share your reasons for your decision/answer

Ask one student (chosen at random) to report out a few points discussed at their group. Take notes on what the students share. After each topic is discussed, ask for other questions or comments from the whole group. See if you can take the students reasoning and fit it into one of the four pricinples of ethics described earlier.

Checking for student understanding

Every voice in an ethical discussion has value, even if its an unpopular opinion or contrary to your own views as a teacher.  Try to act as neutral as possible when taking in all comments about ethical opinions. Use active listening to repeat what you have hear and ask for comments or counter arguments from the group instead of engaging in debate from the class. This gives you, as the instructor, the ability to steer the class back on track if needed, and ensure that all students feel their voices are supported.


Now that your students have had a chance to apply an ethical framework to Cellular Engineering, ask them to write their own question on a sticky note.  This question can be ethical, or clarification, or a concern or comment about the bioethics of Cellular Engineering. 


Is it ethical to expose physarum to chemicals that might harm or kill it?

How do we ensure cellular engineering research benefits everyone equally?

Do organisms have autonomy if they don’t have a brain?




Ethical Question Sorting Activity (40 mins):

Next activity provides an opportunity to examine a range of questions and determine which are questions of ethics.  This is a good extension to help students develop their understanding of ethical questions before starting the bioethical case study.

  • Work in pairs
  • Each pair will be given cards containing questions
  • Sort those into categories

Round 1: Ethical v Scientific Questions

After students sort – ask for volunteers for the types of questions they found. How could they identify the ethical questions in the collection?

Discussion Prompts for whole group:

  • Scientists seek to understand phenomena in the world—they want to describe what something is/how the world works. They answer scientific questions with observations and experimentation.
  • Ethicists seek to understand what people should or ought to do. They answer ethical questions with reasons, using both the facts at hand and relevant ethical considerations, such as respect for persons and fairness.
  • The difference between “is” and “ought” is a good way to summarize a main difference between scientists (who seek to describe and understand the natural world) and ethicists (who seek to determine what one ought to do).

Round 2: Ethical v Legal Questions

Hand students round 2 cards to sort at their tables. Afterwards, collect their impressions of the different types of questions posed.

Discussion prompts for whole group:

  • Ethical analyses should take the legal context and local laws into consideration, but something can be illegal yet ethical.
  • Something can also be legal and unethical, such as the Jim Crow laws that prohibited African Americans from using public water fountains used by whites. Or child labor, etc. It is not illegal to lie about breaking a cereal bowl at your house, but it may be unethical.
  • With respect to performance enhancers in sports, some interventions could be considered unethical even if they are not yet illegal and vice versa.
  • The law typically sets the minimum standards to which people must adhere; ethical standards sometimes focus on ideals or what would be the best thing to do, and not just the minimum or what would be merely acceptable to do.

Round 3: Ethical v Personal Preferences, Customs and Habits

Hand students round 3 cards to sort at their tables. Afterwards, collect their impressions of the different types of questions posed.

Discussion prompts for whole group

  • Ethical analyses should take customs into consideration, but something can be ethical and yet not in accord with personal preference, custom, or habit.
  • Something can be in accord with personal preference, custom, or habit but still be unethical. For example, not long ago in the United States, it was customary to discourage women from certain careers, but this was not ethical.

Round 4: All 4 types

Hand students round 3 cards to sort at their tables. Afterwards, collect their impressions of the different types of questions posed.

What are the main characteristics of an ethical question? What do they have in common?

  • Ethical questions are often about what we should or ought to do. (While the word should frequently appears in ethical questions, it is not always there.)
  • Ethical questions often arise when people aren’t sure what the right thing to do in a certain situation is or when there is a choice or a controversy about what is best.




ETS1 Engineering Design

ETS2 Links Among Engineering, Technology, Science, and Society

Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems

Human Sustainability

Performance Expectations

HS-ETS1-3 Engineering Design

(When evaluating bioethical questions, student groups must priortize criteria and make trade offs that will account for and minimize possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts.)

HS-LS2-7 Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics

(In the discussions around the bioethical questions, students may discuss how a cellular engineering solution could impact the environment or biodiversity. In some cases, students are prompted to think about the impact to native speicies if a cellular engineered organism is released. This challenges students to refine potential cellular engineering solutions to reduce that potential impact to the environment.)

HS-ESS3-4 Earth and Human Activity

(In the discussions around the bioethical questions, students may discuss how a cellular engineering solution could impact natural systems. In some cases, students are prompted to think about the impact to native speicies if a cellular engineered organism is released. This challenges students to refine potential cellular engineering solutions to reduce that potential impact to the environment.)

Disciplinary Core Ideas

ETS1.B Developing Possible Solutions

ETS2.A Interdependence of Science, Engineering, and Technology

(The connection between sciencen and engineering is highlighted when students are asked to discuss possible engineered solutions to reduce the impact of scientific discoveries in cellular engineering.)

ETS2.B Influence of Engineering, Technology, and Science on Society and the Natural World

(Students are asked to discuss potential impacts of new technologies and scientific discoveries on the environment and society.)

HS-LS2.C Ecosystem Dynamics, Functioning, and Resilience

HS-ESS3.C Human Impacts on Earth Systems

Science and Engineering Practices

Practice 6. Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions

Practice 7. Engaging in Argument from Evidence

Practice 8. Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

Cross-Cutting Concepts

Cause and Effect

Scale, Proportion, Quantity

Structure and Function

Stability and Change