Relevancy and Engagement

Genetic Engineering (Grades 9-12)

In addition to selective breeding, genetic engineering tools are used by plant breeders to solve some agricultural challenges such as producing enough food to feed a growing global population or minimizing production impacts on our environment. Some plants have been engineered to be more nutritious, more resistant to pests, or more drought tolerant. In this activity, students will review the process of bacterial transformation and then look at the processes involved in creating genetically engineered plants.

Time to Complete
Two 45-minute class periods
  • Computer and internet access for the teacher and students
  • Genetic Engineering worksheet
  • Set of The Genetic Engineering Process cards (10 cards with illustrations and 10 cards with GE process steps), 1 set per group
  • Mailing Labels – 10 to a sheet; 2 sheets for each set of cards*
  • 3” x 5” index cards*
  • Chart paper
  • Double-sided tape
  • Background Information for student or teacher reference

*Create the Genetic Engineering Process card set for each group of students by copying them on mailing labels; then attach the labels to 3 x 5 index cards. For longer lasting cards, laminate. Alternatively you can print on cardstock and cut them apart. Making sets in different colors will help keep the sets together.

  1. Explain to your students that there are many terms and acronyms related to genetic engineering processes (GE, GM, GMO, genetic engineered, genetically modified, genetically modified organism) which can lead to confusion. It is important to determine what they understand about bacterial transformation and especially genetic engineering. Use the KWL (What do you Know? – What do you Want to know? – What did you Learn?) strategy to begin the activity. Ask your students what bacterial transformation means to them.
  2. Give each student one copy of the Genetic Engineering worksheet and ask them to record their thoughts and questions on the chart at the top of the worksheet. When students have completed their responses, ask them to share their thoughts with the class. Ask if they have heard the term “genetic engineering” and, if they have, what this term means.
  3. Have students record their ideas and questions. These questions will help you assess your students’ current understanding and address their misconceptions. Throughout this activity, students should refer back to the questions and comments on their worksheet.
    • Note: The steps in this activity can be adjusted to match the pace and content you want to emphasize with your students. The activity could follow a vocabulary review and be used to further review vocabulary. It could also be used as a post-assessment of the module’s content.
  4. Have students complete the “What do I know?” and “What do I want to know?” columns of the KWL Chart.
  5. Watch the video, Herbert W. Boyer & Stanley N. Cohen that explains how the two scientists, Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen, were the first to transform bacteria. Students should complete the “What did I learn” column as they watch. 
  6. Watch the the following videos:
  7. When the worksheet is completed, discuss their responses as a class so that everyone has a clear understanding of the process of bacterial transformation and the terminology used in the process. Students should refer to their KWL Charts to make any changes.
  8. Divide the class into small groups. Each group should have one set of the Genetic Engineering Process cards. In the next part of the activity, students will work with a set of cards that represents the steps in the genetic engineering process. Their task is to put the cards in the correct procedural order. Explain that there are two parts to the card set: one has descriptions of the steps; the other has diagrams that illustrate each step. The first challenge is to put the description cards in the correct order that reflects the steps in the GE process. As each card is read out, students should discuss where in the process this step takes place. When each group thinks they have the correct order, they should share with the teacher. If the order is correct, instruct them to proceed by matching the illustrated card to each description card. Each group member should be able to explain how the group determined the order of the cards and which illustration went with each step.
  9. Once each group has successfully arranged their cards, use double-sided tape to attach the cards to a piece of chart paper. Have students use the charts to explain the steps in the GE process; what information on the cards helped them put the cards in the right order? They should be able to describe in their own words the GE Process.
  10. To conclude, replay the video that from the beginning of the activity, Herbert W. Boyer & Stanley N. Cohen. Have students return to their KWL Charts and review their comments and questions about GE. Ask them what further questions they might have, and use these as the basis for the review, addressing any misconceptions the students still have.


Genetic engineering is the use of modern techniques, including recombinant DNA methods, to modify the genetic information in an organism. It allows for faster trait selection than selective breeding, and can enhance the development of plant cultivars to help address some environmental challenges. Some anticipated changes for the future include: A larger library of genes to choose from as scientists are rapidly sequencing the genomes of organisms, and the ability to modify increasingly complex traits as scientists learn more about the cellular and molecular biology of plants.

FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition
FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition

This activity is part of the Science and Our Food Supply: Exploring Food Agriculture and Biotechnology (2020) curriculumFind more classroom activities for middle and high school on the Matrix.

Lessons Associated with this Resource
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