University of Wisconsin–Madison

Tools for Addressing Controversy: Writing and Speaking Activities in an Ethics of Animal Research Course

By Mike Haen, WAC Coordinator

First offered in spring 2019, Professor Eric Sandgren’s course (Pathobiological Sciences, PBS 370) invites undergraduate students to grapple with the ethics of using animals for scientific research, especially for research that could reduce human suffering caused by diseases like cancer. Titled “Addressing Controversy: The Science, Ethics, and Public Discussion of Animal Research,” the course teaches students about regulations for conducting animal research, various bioethical views towards animals, and approaches for communicating the research to the public. As part of a Communication-B course, the writing and speaking assignments allow students to consider several nuanced perspectives on the issue and to explain and revise their positions on the use of animals in scientific research. Throughout the semester, students engage with a larger question that Sandgren believes is central to a civil, democratic society: “How do we live together with people who disagree with us?”

Meghan Hoel, an aspiring medical researcher and undergraduate in Sandgren’s spring 2019 course, entered the class with the belief that animal research was a “necessary evil.” She still views animal research as necessary for advancing understanding of human disease and medicine, but she left with a greater appreciation for the nuanced and “multi-faceted” perspectives on the topic. By semester’s end, Sandgren noted that, like Meghan, many students did not fundamentally change their positions. Importantly though, they arrived at a more holistic understanding of the arguments and reasoning forwarded by researchers and animal activists alike. 

What Inspired the Course and Its Design

Sandgren’s interest in scientific research with animals dates back to his undergraduate years at UW-Madison and continued through graduate school. After completing a degree in Veterinary Medicine and a PhD in Genetics at the University of Pennsylvania, he returned to UW-Madison in 1993 as a faculty member in the School of Veterinary Medicine. Since then, he has conducted extensive research using animal models (e.g., genetically-modified mice) to better understand organisms’ responses to liver cancer.  

Sandgren’s research career and his public-facing work inspired him to develop the course PBS 370. After establishing a strong research profile, he became involved with discussions about animal research ethics as a member of the Animal Care and Use Committee, the director of the Research Animal Resource Center, and a spokesperson for the animal program. Through his work in these various roles, he helped to found the Forum on Animal Research Ethics with his colleague Robert Streiffer, who is a Professor of Philosophy and Bioethics at UW-Madison and co-teaches PBS 370 with Sandgren

“Through [UW’s teaching and learning programs], I learned how to articulate learning objectives, design meaningful assignments aligning with those objectives, and organize a classroom that went beyond lecture.”

In an attempt to move away from lecture-heavy course design and foster more active learning in PBS 370, Sandgren sought guidance from teaching and learning programs on campus, including the DELTA Program, the Discussion Project, and the Writing Across the Curriculum Program. “Through these programs, I learned how to articulate learning objectives, design meaningful assignments aligning with those objectives, and organize a classroom that went beyond lecture,” Sandgren explained. While he believes lecturing is valuable, Sandgren felt the need to limit lecture to maximize opportunities for dialogue between students and instructors. Such a collaborative, active-learning environment helps students strengthen their ability to take informed positions on a controversial issue, provides evidence for those positions, and reconciles those positions with others.

A Closer Look at the Assignments and In-Class Activities

To establish the tone for the course and its emphasis on active learning, Sandgren began the semester by having students write and present a 100-word statement describing their current position on the use of animals in research. Students were asked to provide three reasons for their position and explain their disagreement with counterarguments. After students read their position statements aloud, Sandgren helped the class generate a comprehensive list of the “pro and con arguments” pertaining to animal research. Collaboratively constructing these lists became a prominent and repeated practice in the class. This initial activity, along with readings (e.g., on regulations governing animal research) and writing assignments during the first four weeks, established a classroom space where students did more than listen to a traditional lecture. They used the course material to have conversations with one another that clarified their own positions, and they found some common ground across different viewpoints. Importantly, many assignments built on previous ones, which promoted student reflection and revision of their prior learning and ideas.

The first three of the eight total writing assignments prepared students for the fourth (and more formal) of the assignments, which asked them to evaluate and critique three case studies of controversial scientific research at UW-Madison including (1) decompression research in sheep, (2) auditory research in cats, and (3) anxiety research in monkeys. Reflecting on the course, student Meghan Hoel identified this writing assignment as a “turning point” for her because it required going beyond a scientific mindset and considering perspectives from bioethics and philosophical questions about researchers’ responsibility for animal wellbeing.

In line with the Communication-B emphasis on strengthening speaking skills, students gave a four-minute oral presentation about halfway through the semester. The presentation needed to articulate their position at the start of the semester and how it evolved as the course progressed. The fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth writing assignments provided students with additional opportunities to deepen and complicate their positions on animal research. For example, the fifth writing assignment was a series of two-page critiques of guest speakers, including animal activists and scientific researchers who made the case for or against the use of animals.

According to Sandgren, students greatly appreciated how each speaker “always acknowledged the potential benefits and negative consequences of animal research.” Such balanced perspectives from guest speakers modeled the kinds of thinking that students valued and engaged in. For the eighth and final four-page writing assignment, students explained whether or under what circumstances they believed that animal research should be permitted, with the aim of persuading someone with a different view. This assignment, and the course as a whole, helped students form more nuanced perspectives towards animal research.

The Role of Evaluation Criteria and Feedback

While enrolled in the spring 2018 WAC-DELTA course (“Using Writing to Teach in Any Discipline”), Sandgren designed evaluation criteria for each of his assignments and adapted much of that criteria from the WAC Program’s Sourcebook, which contains teaching materials from faculty and instructional staff across UW-Madison’s campus. In his feedback on more formal writing assignments, Sandgren prioritized global concerns and coached students to improve their organization, which aligns with best practices in teaching writing across the curriculum. 

Looking back on the semester, he saw improvement in many students’ writing and thinking, which would be more difficult to achieve without feedback and revision.

For shorter and more informal assignments (1-2 pages), Sandgren provided endnote comments with Canvas’s SpeedGrader tool, giving fewer marginal comments than he did for longer drafts. Speaking to the importance of feedback, Sandgren noted that “It is hard to know what to improve without it … as an undergraduate, I remember struggling with deciding what to focus on when teachers gave little to no feedback.” Looking back on the semester, he saw improvement in many students’ writing and thinking, which would be more difficult to achieve without feedback and revision. In addition to Sandgren’s comments, students also benefited from comments from two undergraduate Writing Fellows, who provided written comments and talked with students about some of their drafts.

What Does Next Semester Have in Store?

This spring Sandgren plans to continue much of what he did in 2019. He will change some instructions and may alter his approach to commenting on shorter assignments. The crux of the course, with its emphasis on writing and discussion, will remain the same. Reflecting on the course, Sandgren explained, “I would encourage instructors to find more ways to incorporate discussion, speaking, and writing in their classes, because we need students who can engage in civil dialogue about controversial issues.” Pathobiological Sciences 370 is one successful model for other teachers who want to promote this civil dialogue and help students learn “how to live together.”