Lesson 6

Missing Voices: Rosalin Franklin and the Discovery of DNA (Day 2 of 2)

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SWBAT explain the discovery of DNA and the role of scientists such as Rosalin Franklin

Big Idea

Use an intriguing historical dilemma and drama techniques to get your students talking about and relating to the discovery of DNA's structure!

Notes for the Teacher

This two lesson series includes a drama technique I am working with for the first time this school year.  This Nova documentary about the discovery of the structure of DNA with an emphasis on the work of Rosalin Franklin is one students enjoy every year.  By adding in a second day to reenact and question the scenarios presented from multiple perspectives, students gain a broader understanding of the discovery of DNA.  The drama strategy approach is a great pre-writing activity that allows students to engage in multiple content related conversations in a playful, enjoyable way.   

On Day 1, students view the documentary and respond to individual reflection questions.  We wrap up with a whole group check in to clarify any areas that are unclear for students.  Standard(s): W.9-10.2dSL.9-10.1SL.9-10.1aSL.9-10.1dSL.9-10.3RST.9-10.1RST.9-10.2RST.9-10.6HS-LS3-1SP7SP8XC-SF-HS-2

During Day 2,  students take on the roles of the characters represented in the movie and interview each other about the scenarios presented in the film.  Standard(s): W.9-10.2dSL.9-10.1SL.9-10.1aSL.9-10.1dSL.9-10.3RST.9-10.1RST.9-10.2RST.9-10.6HS-LS3-1SP7SP8XC-SF-HS-2

The use of drama strategies is a new area of exploration for me as a teacher this semester and the student response has been overwhelmingly positive.  The opportunity to be creative, approach content from multiple perspectives, and be physically active has energized my class at a time of the school year when students begin to feel the fatigue of the academic school year.  I look forward to hearing about the strategies you employ to keep our students actively engaged throughout our school year together!

The Classroom Flow: Checking In, Clarifying

10 minutes

1.  Ask students to take out their Rosalind Franklin movie questions document related to the documentary film viewed in class yesterday.

Note: The link above is an image of the movie cover for all of us visual learners so that you can find it among the many options online regarding the history of the discovery of DNA's structure.  The NOVA movie's companion website has many great resources to support student learning and questions including interviews and photographs.  My students liked hearing a scientists talk about why Rosalin Franklin should have been awarded a Nobel prize for her work.

2.  Using the spokesperson protocol, ask student groups to discuss their movie question document answers and come up with one 'burning question' they need to check in with the entire class and you for greater understanding.  Field questions as needed.  

  • Note:  The most typical burning questions involve the role of Pauling in the race to find the structure of DNA and the controversy with Watson's academic publishing house.  Check out a great student work sample for answers to those two questions that could help the class as a whole.

The Classroom Flow: Setting the Stage

10 minutes

1.  Go to the board and ask students to help you lay out the main characters of the story by popcorning out some of the names and personalities they encountered in the video.  Typical choices include:  Watson, Crick, Rosalin, Wilkins, etc. 

2.  Ask students to now consider some of the voices/faces we didn't necessarily see but know must have been there in the actual history.  They could be people  like:  other lab mates at King's College, boyfriends/girlfriends of the scientists, a book publisher, parents, friends, pets,etc.  List them up on the board.

  • Note:  You will find that students will be imaginative about all the people not in the film but still in the story in some way…let them!  They enjoy the friendly competition of coming up with interesting side voices and it engages them further in the process of really understanding the scientist connections and research.  

3.  Once you have your complete list up on the board, ask students to each choose one character from the list to represent.  Have them write a brief monologue on a piece of paper about who they are and how they feel about Rosalin's situation at the lab and beyond.

  • Note:  This step is a preparation for the next segment of the lesson.  You can choose to collect these or not; I found that the learning really takes place in the conversations and debrief that follow while the pre-writing here serves the purpose of preparing students, getting them into the mindset necessary for the role play activity, and reduces anxiety about talking and improvising.  To help you see the type of ideas students may express, here is a student work sample of this preparation step to the activity.

The Classroom Flow: Interviewing the Characters

15 minutes

1.  Because this is the second time students have employed a role playing activity in the class, students will be familiar with how to set up their chairs in two circles, with student pairs facing each other.  The chair set up is important so that students feel grouped in smaller pairs within the bigger group while minimizing the time between transitions.  

2.  Once each student is in a chair, tell students that those seated on the outside of the circle will be the reporters and those seated on the inside are the characters.  Tell the characters to read over their monologue wile the reporters take one minute to brainstorm the types of questions they might like to ask each character.  You can support by suggestion ideas to students who are struggling such as:

  • Who are you?
  • What do you know about the discovery of DNA?
  • Is there anything about the story that isn't being told that you want out there for everyone to read?
  • What do you think about (name of person)?  Why?

3.  Once they are ready, tell the reporters they will have a few minutes to interview their character before you tell them to move over one seat to interview their next candidate.  Remind them that they need to introduce themselves and state what newspaper they are from and to be sure to ask who they are speaking to!  The goal here is for them to gather more information about the story of the discovery of DNA from multiple perspectives, some of which may never have been heard of before! Take a look at this student work sample for an example of a typical script from this activity. I was very happy with the storytelling flow of student writing and how students blended their unique voices in with the facts of the story.

4.  Base your timing for each interview on the interest and engagement of the group.  Typically, this can range from 1-3 minutes for each character interview.

The Classroom Flow: Activity Debrief

10 minutes

1.  Ask students to popcorn out answers to the following prompts:

What was this process like for you?

What did you learn?

What other questions do you have?

2.  Using the spokesperson protocol, ask each lab group to get together and come up with their headline for this story.  Share out responses.  Students will report out many things about the activity including:

  • It helped them remember the flow of events of the discovery of DNA structure.
  • It helped them understand what Rosalin Franklin and Watson and Crick all actually did in terms of science.
  • It helped them sort out how hard it must have been to be a woman scientist during that time.
  • It got them wondering about the Nobel prize rules for sharing credit and living vs. deceased award winners.
  • It got them thinking about how x-ray crystallography is basically an x-ray and wondering about what kind of prep work had to happen to take those x-rays of DNA. Why was it so hard and why was Rosalin Franklin so good at it when others weren't?
  • It got them thinking about science like an athletic competition, the way Watson and Crick wanted to win out over Pauling and everybody else, that they wanted to be somebody in the science world by being the first in a field they didn't even really study before this!


3.  There are so many rich connections you can make here about the non-linear path of science discoveries, the way collaboration, communication, and competition are all essential to advancements, and how being an outsider can be both a challenge and an advantage when looking for new perspectives on a hard problem.  Students may also want to talk more about equity issues, specifically how different groups are not looked upon as credible in the science world and society as a whole as well as how the general public doesn't know much about rules about publishing academic vs. more casual works.  Would everyone have thought so highly of Watson's book had they realized that Harvard determined it wasn't truthful enough to be published under their name?

4.  Thank students for participating and remind them of their movie questions document and typed interview script due dates, answering any final clarifying questions about their written work before the class period ends.