Lilly Series – Pulling the Rug Out

By CTE staff member and biology instructor, Meg Elias.  The Lilly Series is a set of posts based on sessions held at the Lilly Conference for Evidence-Based Teaching, October 2015.
To teach independent thinking in the college classroom, it is important to give students opportunities to take risks without the penalty of “being wrong.” In my experience teaching science to non-majors, students often hesitate to voice their opinion on any subject, perhaps because they aren’t sure how they would defend themselves if challenged. Jeff Murray’s Pulling the Rug Out session at the Lilly Conference gave me an idea for a learning activity based on an ethical question which would allow students to reflect on and challenge their own beliefs in a safe environment.

In one of the varied activities during Murray’s workshop, we were given a list of 16 living things ranging from broccoli to dolphins. We were instructed to assign each item to a category.  Here are my answers:

Acceptable to kill for want
Acceptable to kill for need
Never acceptable to kill
Chicken        Cow
Turtle          Salmon
Butterfly      Rat
Mussel          Mosquito

I found it to be a very simple exercise, until Jeff asked us to define the rules we used to separate the organisms. Even though I am a biologist, it was hard for me to verbalize why I had listed a chicken as acceptable to kill for need, but not a dolphin (brain size, maybe). In comparing notes with my neighbors, I was surprised to find out that one of them disagreed with my decision that it was okay to kill a rose bush “for want.”  That conversation forced me to put into words the difference I see between harming a plant versus harming an animal (the presence of a nervous system).  How then, do I justify swatting a mosquito that might bite me?  Is that really a need?
The discomfort at having to defend an ambiguous opinion is part of the “pulling the rug out” that Murray wanted us to experience. I can foresee using a similar activity within a genetics unit, asking students the acceptability of various ethical scenarios involving genetic manipulation in plants and animals. Is it acceptable, for example, to give prospective parents the right to select embryos that are healthy and free from genetic diseases? Is that different from artificially selecting the gender of their offspring? 
We need to teach our students that there is value in digging deep and revisiting our perceptions of the world, even allowing them to change their minds in the process.  Activities that challenge us to remove subjectivity can expand scientific literacy and build a sense of ethical responsibility, objectives that should be considered as important as retention of content.
Read more of Jeff Murray’s work here:
If you’d like to learn more about the Lilly Conference, visit the CTE or contact Meg Elias at

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