Target Grade Level / Age Range:

High school: 10-12


45 minutes

Virtual Learning:

Use this document to convert the lesson into a virtual learning module for your students. Use the steps outlined to create the different elements of a Google Classroom or other online learning platform. You can also send the steps directly to students in a PDF, present them in a virtual meeting, or plug them into any other virtual learning module system.


To expose students to modern agriculture issues, scientific solutions, and the outcomes of those decisions, while discussing the sciences of biology and biotechnology, this lesson will look at the decision making process behind genetically modified organisms.

Students will will construct an argument from presented evidence and learn to become good consumers of information. 


  • GMO issue
  • GMO solution
  • GMO results
  • “Biology stack” cups - 9 Foam cups per group (can use multiple sets)
    • Label rims of cups to be readable when cup is upside down
    • Labels needed:
      • Organism
      • Organ
      • Tissue
      • Cell
      • Chromosomes
      • DNA
      • Nucleotides
      • Molecule/Compound
      • Atom/Element

Suggested Companion Resources (books and websites)

Vocabulary (with definitions)

  • Nucleotides – Nucleotides form the basic structural unit of nucleic acids (DNA)
  • Molecule – A group of atoms bonded together, representing the smallest fundamental unit of a chemical compound that can take part in a chemical reaction
  • Compound – A substance formed when two or more chemical elements are bonded together
  • Atom – The basic unit of a chemical element
  • Oxidize – Undergo or cause to undergo a reaction in which an element becomes combined chemically with oxygen
  • Malnutrition – Faulty nutrition due to inadequate or unbalanced intake of nutrients or their impaired assimilation or utilization
  • Salinity – Saltiness or dissolved salt content of a material
  • Broadleaf – Otherwise known as “dicotyledonous,” these plants have embryos with two cotyledons (seed leaves). They differ from grasses (monocotyledons) when mature because of their large, broad leaves. Broadleaf plants may also be referred to as “dicots,” and grasses may also be referred to as “monocots.”
  • Transformation – A process by which the genetic material carried by an individual cell is altered by the incorporation of foreign (exogenous) DNA into its genome.
  • Bt – A naturally occurring soil bacterium (Bacillus thuringiensis) that produces a protein toxic to caterpillars but safe for other insects and animals. This protein can be inserted into a plant’s DNA to keep the plant safe from specific pests. These plants are often referred to as “Bt varieties.”
  • Glyphosate – A synthetic compound that is nonselective (kills both broadleaf plants and grasses), systemic (travels throughout the plant) herbicide. Glyphosate is a group 9 EPSPS inhibitor.
  • Gene gun – Also called a biolistic particle delivery system, this is a way to deliver new genetic material to a plant cell. The “gun” houses numerous metallic particles that are coated with DNA, and those particles are shot at the plant, letting the DNA be absorbed into the cells themselves (see transformation above).
  • Germplasm – Living genetic resources (such as seeds or tissue) that is maintained for the purpose of plant and animal breeding, preservation, or research uses.

Background – Agricultural Connections (what would a teacher need to know to be able to teach this content)

“GMO” is a blanket term that can mean any organism that has been developed or changed by humans. This could be by crossbreeding, seed selection, or genetic engineering.

Generally, genetic engineering refers to humans selecting genes from one organism and inserting them into another organism. Though there are many ways that this is done, a common practice is using a “gene gun” that shoots small pellets coated with the gene (inside of a vector) at the target plant. The plant would then absorb the vectors and therefore the gene.

Crossbreeding or seed selection are some common ways to improve or alter crops with minimal technology. Using these options, producers work to combine the best traits or only grow the best plants through visual observation. The same type of idea can be seen in livestock, where ranchers breed only their best animals and try to complement the traits of them.

Interest Approach or Motivator

Many food issues are big issues right now. This lesson addresses or touches on many of those topics, including:

  1. GMOs – what that means and what they are
  2. Herbicide use
  3. World hunger
  4. Malnutrition and undernourishment
  5. Food waste
  6. Climate change
  7. Food deserts



  1. Start the activity by talking through the levels of organization in a living organism (organism, organ, tissue, cell, etc.).
  2. Have the class divide themselves into groups of 3-4. These groups will work together for another activity later. Give each group a set of the “Biology Stack” cups (shuffled into the wrong order). Have each group work out the correct order separately.
    1. Correct order should be: Organism, organ, tissue, cell, chromosomes, DNA, nucleotides, molecule/compound, atom/element
  3. Once the groups have come to a consensus, bring the class back together. Lead the cups activity into a discussion on biotechnology. Clarify what biotechnology is or can be. Explain crossbreeding systems as opposed to recombinant DNA and genetic engineering. Ask students where in the levels of organization they think the change occurs in the organism.
    1. Have students think about each level of organization, and how humans can manage that in other species (or our own). These can be examples:
      1. Humans manage plants and animals through pesticides and herd management
      2. Humans manage organs with fertilizer (plants) and antibiotics and vaccines (animals) to keep them healthy
      3. Humans can directly manage cells (think cancer and chemotherapy)
      4. Humans manage chromosomes (think selective breeding)
      5. Humans manage DNA (think genetic engineering)
      6. Humans manage amino acids (think type of feed-plant based protein versus animal based protein)
      7. Humans manage atoms and molecules (think C3-carbon from corn and 97% of plants, and C4-carbon from grasses)
  4. Once the discussion on levels of organization is finished, have a volunteer or two summarize what they learned. Then, split the class back into their groups. Give each group a set of issues cards. Have the students read each issue out loud and place it on the table.
    1. Have students discuss the issue. Why is it important? Who is affected?
    2. Have students brainstorm possible solutions based on prior knowledge.
  5. Then hand each group a set of the solutions cards. Students should then read the solutions cards. As they read each card out loud, have them place it on top of the issue card that it corresponds to.
    1. Does the solution address the issue?
    2. What types of technology are involved in the solution? What types of science are involved in the solution?
  6. Repeat with the results cards.
    1. Correct matching should be:






Arctic apples won’t…



Golden Rice could…



Rice is the primary…



Norman Borlaug…



Innate potatoes reduce…



Bt Corn has revolutionized…



The Rainbow Papaya…



RoundUp Ready…


  1. Is the result safe? Why or why not?
  2. Could this technology be applied to other foods? If so, what?

Once each group is finished, have a class discussion about each scenario. Give correct answers. When discussing each scenario, address reasoning for the solutions, possible pros and cons of those solutions, and the importance of those solutions to those benefiting from them.

  • In this discussion, it would also be possible to address career possibilities within biotechnology. Crop science, horticulture, biology, agronomy, genetics, or botany could all be potential fields of value. Ask students what other careers relate to these scenarios.

Wrap up with asking the students what they learned, what they found interesting, what they would like to remember. Have the students then take a couple minutes to jot down answers to a few questions (below). Have the students turn them in before class is dismissed (or turn them in during the next class period).

  • What are the levels of organization in biology?
  • What is a genetically modified organism?
  • What is genetic engineering?
  • Name three careers related to biotechnology.
  • Write down two key points you would like to remember.
  • How could the use of GMOs increase the value of agricultural land?
  • How do you define sustainable agriculture?
  • How does the government play a role in regulating GMOs?
  • What careers are involved in researching GMOs?
  • How do ideas about GMOs of groups you are involved in (family, school groups, church groups, etc.) influence your own ideas about GMOs?
  • Based on what you know know about GMOs, how can you have an impact on members of those groups in influence their thoughts about GMOs?
  • Think about anit-GMO activist groups. How do groups like that begin to form? Will their ideas become a societal norm?
  • Think about scientific groups who support the use of GMO technology. How do groups like that form? Will their ideas become a societal norm?

Essential Files (maps, charts, pictures, or documents)

Did you know? (Ag facts)

  • Glyphosate, a common “burn-down” herbicide, has been in use since the 1970s!
  • The “Father of the Green Revolution”, Norman Borlaug, was a native Iowan! Through his work, he was credited with saving one billion lives, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
  • Researchers have been working with hybrid varieties since the 1940s, and have been working with genetic engineering since the 1980s!
  • Genetically Modified Organisms are regulated by three parts of the U.S. Government: the FDA, the USDA, and the EPA.
  • It takes approximately 13 years for a genetically modified crop to reach the market after its inception.

Extension Activities (how students can carry this beyond the classroom)


  • Ask students to pay attention to and record instances where they see or hear references to GMOs. (Examples could be GMO free snacks at a gas station, news stories, etc.) Ask them to pay attention to context, what the meaning is, and why it is being referenced. Have them relate it back to this lesson and what they have learned.



Chrissy Rhodes and Will Fett

Organization Affiliation

Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation

National Agriculture Literacy Outcomes


  • Theme 1: Agriculture and the Environment;
    • Identify non-native or invasive species in your state that impact the sustainability and/or economic value of natural or agricultural ecosystems
    • Discuss the value of agricultural land
    • Evaluate the various definitions of “sustainable agriculture,” considering population growth, carbon footprint, environmental systems, land and water resources, and economics
  • Theme 2: Plants and Animals for Food, Fiber & Energy
    • Discuss reasons for government’s involvement in agricultural production, processing, and distribution
    • Evaluate evidence for differing points of view on topics related to agricultural production, processing, and marketing (e.g., grazing; genetic variation and crop production; use of fertilizers and pesticides; open space; farmland preservation; animal welfare practices; world hunger)
  • Theme 3: Food, Health & Lifestyle
    • Explain food labeling terminology related to marketing and how it affects consumer choices (e.g., natural, free-range, certified organic, conventional, cage-free, zero trans-fat, sugar-free, reduced calorie)
  • Theme 4: Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics
    • Identify current and emerging scientific discoveries and technologies and their possible use in agriculture (e.g., biotechnology, bio-chemical, mechanical, etc.)
    • Evaluate the benefits and concerns related to the application of technology to agricultural systems (e.g., biotechnology)
    • Predict the types of careers and skills agricultural scientists will need in the future to support agricultural production and meet the needs of a growing population
  • Theme 5: Culture, Society, Economy & Geography
    • Discuss how agricultural practices have increased agricultural productivity and have impacted (pro and con) the development of the global economy, population and sustainability

Iowa Core Standards


  • Social Studies:
    • SS-US.9-12.22. Evaluate the impact of inventions and technological innovations on the American society and culture.
    • SS.Psy.9-12.14. Examine how an individual’s involvement in a collective group can influence their individual thoughts and behaviors.
    • SS.Psy.9-12.15. Analyze the influence different individual members of a group can have on the collective thought and behavior of the group as a whole.
    • SS.Soc.9-12.13. Explain the formation of groups and the creation and development of societal norms and values.
  • English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects
    • IA.1., DOK 2,3: Employ the full range of research-based comprehension strategies, including making connections, determining importance, questioning, visualizing, making inferences, summarizing, and monitoring for comprehension.
  • Science
    • HS-LS1-2: Develop and use a model to illustrate the hierarchical organization of interacting systems that provide specific functions within multicellular organisms.
    • HS-LS2-7: Design, evaluate, and refine a solution for reducing the impacts of human activities on the environment and biodiversity.
    • HS-LS3-1: Ask questions to clarify relationships about the role of DNA and chromosomes in coding the instructions for characteristic traits passed from parents to offspring.
    • HS-ESS3-3: Create a computational simulation to illustrate the relationships among management of natural resources, the sustainability of human populations, and biodiversity.
    • HS-ESS3-4: Evaluate or refine a technological solution that reduces impacts of human activities on natural systems.
    • HS-ETS1-2: Design a solution to a complex real-world problem by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable problems that can be solved through engineering.
    • HS-ETS1-3: Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics, as well as possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts.

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