This class case study provides an example of introducing ethical thinking into the classroom to explore a controversial issue in science. It shows how the ethical frameworks in the Ethics thinking toolkit and a range of classroom activities can be integrated to scaffold ethical thinking.

This case study formed part of the research prior to developing the Ethics thinking toolkit and, as such, uses ideas that informed the development of the toolkit and not the toolkit itself. The Ethics thinking toolkit provides additional support to help structure students’ thinking and decision making using ethical frameworks.

As part of their preparations for the school science fair, a class of intermediate students participated in a five-lesson programme designed to engage them in thinking about the use of animals in research.

Science focus

  • Life processes (level 4): Recognise that there are life processes common to all living things (which is why animals can be used as ‘human substitutes’) and that these occur in different ways (which is why some mammals are better suited as human substitutes).
  • Evolution (level 4): Appreciate that some living things in New Zealand are quite different from living things in other areas of the world (for example, the takahē as an example of a flightless bird).
  • Participating and contributing (level 4): Use their growing science knowledge (of why animals are used in research) when considering issues of concern to them. Explore various aspects of an issue and make decisions about possible actions (for example, whether to support the use of animals in research).
  • Participating and contributing (level 5): Develop an understanding of socio-scientific issues (for example, using animals in research) by gathering relevant scientific information in order to draw evidence-based conclusions and to take action where appropriate.

Learning objectives

  • To use the internet to identify examples of when and why animals are used in research, which animals are used and animal welfare requirements.
  • To consider the potential harms and benefits to people and the animals affected by research involving animals.
  • To present a written argument, supported by relevant scientific facts, in support of or against the use of animals in research.

Using ethical approaches to guide decision-making

Ethicists use a range of ethical approaches to make decisions about what is right or wrong. Here, the teacher chose to focus on consequentialism: considering the harms and benefits associated with a particular decision or action. Issues of rights and responsibilities were also raised. (What rights do the animals have? What laws protect these rights?)

See the article Frameworks for ethical analysis.

Teaching and learning activities

Human continuum

Students formed a line across the classroom to indicate their views on whether animals should be used in research.

Internet search

Students used the internet to learn more about why and when animals are used in research:

  • What types of research are animals used for?
  • What types of animals are used?
  • What benefits has science/mankind had from it?
  • What’s an example of animals used in research?
  • What harm can animal research do?
  • What is the law for caring for animals (animal welfare)?
  • History of animals in research.

Class discussion

  • Summarised findings from the research task.
  • Introduced students to the Animal Welfare Act and ethics approval processes.
  • Identification of different types of research that might use animals (for example, medical research, cosmetics research, research on climate change) and the possible harms and benefits for stakeholder groups.

Written report

Students were required to support their views with facts by writing a report ‘Should animals be used in research?’ using this structure:

  • Introduction: This essay will discuss …
  • First paragraph: The first reason why animals should/should not be involved in this kind of research is …
  • Second paragraph: A second reason why animals should/should not be involved in this kind of research is …
  • Third paragraph: Other people may disagree with these arguments because …
  • Conclusion: In conclusion, I think …   because …

After completing the essay, students were asked to reread it to check that it:

  • has an introduction that says what the essay is about
  • says whether the research is acceptable or not
  • gives at least two reasons why you think the research is/is not acceptable and these reasons are backed up by facts
  • gives one reason why others might disagree with your reasons (a counter-argument)
  • has a conclusion that summarises your opinion
  • is clear and easy to read.

Key messages

  • Students concluded they needed to be able to back up their opinion with facts.
  • The classroom environment allowed alternative views to be safely expressed. It was important for the students to realise that multiple views existed.
  • Science knowledge was used to help understand the different dimensions of the issue. For example, it was important for students to understand that animals are bred specifically for the purpose of being used in research. (Some students initially felt that endangered wild populations might be under threat; others argued that only pests like rats should be used in research.)
  • Cross-curricular benefits included the embedding of argument writing in a science topic.
  • The teacher found it helpful to understand more about approaches that can be used to make ethical decisions: “Many teachers often talk about ethics and opinions when discussing current affairs in the classroom. Much of this discussion, though, can be gut-orientated. It is nice to have a list of the other ways we can form opinions and persuade others. I don’t think the students judge so much on face value as they used to.”
  • The teacher found it difficult not to express her own views and let the students form their own opinion.
  • In general, boys tended to use less emotive language when justifying their positions. Some of the girls were strongly impacted by what the teacher described as ‘propagandist’ websites.

Useful links

Read about legal aspects of animal welfare on the Ministry for Primary Industries website.

Read the Animal Welfare Act 1999 in full.

RNZ audio from Our Changing World looking at zebrafish – small tropical fish being used to help genetic research into human cancers and developmental diseases. 


This classroom programme formed part of a project funded by Toi te Taiao: the Bioethics Council. We thank the teacher and students for participating in this programme.


    Published 17 December 2010, Updated 19 June 2017