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Upper School Chemistry Students Meet Controversy with Academic Debate

Many topics in science are straightforward. Few people will argue whether or not water is made of hydrogen and oxygen. But issues more closely tied to human behavior are often debated in both academia and the court of public opinion. What is the extent of human impact on global climate change? Are there benefits to holistic medicine? We look to the scientific community to answer these questions, but even within those circles, there are varied perspectives. Upper School chemistry teacher Mr. Nick DeMarte asks his classes, “If science is a body of facts, why are there different opinions?” And then the debates begin.

Relevant for our Students

A few months into the year, Mr. DeMarte noticed students posting polls on the board before class. “Is water wet?” “Is a hotdog a sandwich?” With only a few minutes of downtime, they would engage in lively debate over seemingly goofy questions. Mr. DeMarte could feel the energy in the room as they tried to outwit one another. These informal conversations inspired him to channel that enthusiasm into something that would benefit his students for years to come, a formalized scientific debate.
“Once my students are out of school, or even while they are in college, this is how these discussions should happen — as evidence-based arguments that don’t pull in too much personal opinion. They need to know how to talk about what can be controversial topics no matter what field they go into. Making sure there are opportunities that mirror that is important." — Mr. DeMarte

Preparation

Mr. DeMarte begins this project with a round-table discussion on the importance of diverse perspectives in science. The classes watch examples of formal scientific debates and practice how to formally structure arguments with mini-debates in class. He then assigns topics including:
  • Are there benefits to holistic medicine?
  • Can alternative energy effectively replace fossil fuels?
  • Is it too late to reverse human impact on global climate change?
  • Do zoos do more harm than good?
Students work in groups to conduct research and formulate their position statements using scientific databases and reference materials from the library. As our students work through their research, they learn how to evaluate sources of information to address specific scientific questions, communicate scientific ideas effectively, determine the merits of an argument based on evidence presented and counter an argument with data and evidence.
Severn School students work together on a laptop computer.
On debate day, students review their notes before presenting.
“These are the kinds of skills my students can use in the real world — in any field — not just in my classes. Whether that’s being informed consumer, an informed voter, or even just to be able to talk about topics that are important to them, I want them to see the connection between what they are learning and the bigger world." — Mr. DeMarte

The Debates

The debates take place over two days followed by a third day for judges statements and reflection. On each debate day, the teams go back and forth to:
  • Present either an affirmative or negative position statement
  • Formulate a rebuttal to the opposing team’s statement
  • Respond to the rebuttal
  • Close with a final position that summarizes the strongest points from each previous statement
Severn School student speaking at a podium.
Although the whole group prepares the remarks, one student speaks for each team.
Mr. DeMarte works hands-on with each team as the debates progress, offering strategies to help them develop the strongest argument possible based on the evidence they have to review.
Severn School teachers helps a student
Mr. DeMarte circles the room during breaks in the debate to offer suggestions.
Student judges evaluate each phase of the debate and award points based on a rubric that Mr. DeMarte provides. They not only evaluate the spoken arguments, but also how the teams work together. When they award points at the end, they also present a statement to support their decision using specific evidence from the winning arguments.
Severn School students work at desks.
Student judges listen carefully while taking notes on every remark.

Win, Win

At the end of the third day, the groups reflect on their experience. Mr. DeMarte stresses that no matter which team scores higher, everyone walks away a winner. Every student learns to carefully investigate opposing sides of a controversial topic and consider open-ended questions with curious and evidence-based thought.

Authentic learning is something our teachers strive for in every class, in every discipline. Our teachers build lessons that not only reflect their students’ interests, but that are meaningful and applicable to their lives. Through projects like these, our teachers model a passion for learning that motivates and inspires our students to take on new challenges, embrace diverse perspectives and grow as educated citizens of our world.

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Lower School

Preschool-Grade 5
Chesapeake Campus
1185 Baltimore Annapolis Blvd
Arnold, MD 21012

Middle/Upper School

Grade 6-12
Teel Campus
Severna Park, MD 21146