I showed the movie Gattaca today at school as a vehicle for a day of ethics conversations. The film was released in 1997 and tells the story of a man who masquerades as genetically modified in a society where it’s the only way to the best jobs — including that of navigating a space mission to Titan. I’ve included the movie’s preview below.

Our day was incredibly successful. Students debated the issue from 8am until 3pm. Here is the lesson plan I followed.

  1. Without explanation, give each student either a “Valid” or “In-Valid” sticker to wear. Leave a Valid sticker out in plain sight and in front of one In-Valid. Wink at or otherwise non-verbally encourage the In-Valid to become a “borrowed ladder”.
  2. Give a definition of ethics. Discuss what ethics means to an individual, a family, and a community. Especially: Are ethics absolute? (15-30 minutes)
  3. Watch the movie Gattaca. (105 minutes)
  4. Divide the Valids from the In-Valids. Send each group to separate rooms to answer questions. Allow both sides to hear your introductions. Give a positive spin to the Valids (hiring the best and the brightest, etc.) and a negative spin to the In-Valids. Ask that all students stay in character to answer the questions. 1) Are Gattaca Space Corporation’s hiring practices ethical? 2) Are they legal? And 3) How do you feel about it as a Valid or In-Valid? (20 minutes)
  5. Bring the groups back together and have each group’s spokesperson present their answers. In the process, encourage and allow intra-group pride. As is appropriate, expose the masquerading In-Valid. (20 minutes)
  6. Provide the group with several discussion questions to be answered in small groups. My questions were: 1) Name some well-known ethics of American society. 2) The society in Gattaca has been called a dystopia because the society looks like a utopia but is built on a fatal flaw. Explore the flaw. 3) Did Vincent compromise his own ethics by taking on Jerome’s identity? And 4) How does the look/style of the film comment on the ethical situation contained in it? (15 minutes)
  7. Bring the groups back together and have each group’s spokesperson present their answers. (20 minutes)

I had an entire day to devote to ethics because about half the high school is currently on a camping trip. With only about 30 high school students in attendance, the faculty and I decided to teach day-long units to all rather than go about the regular schedule with 2-3 students per class.
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