1923 Role Play


In this activity, students debated topics in science and technology from the perspective of a stakeholder during a particular period in 20th century American history. While this structure was used for all three debates, this posting will draw from one debate in particular, the 1923 immigration committee role play.

Goal/s: Understand the historical context of certain scientific and technological advancements, and provide exposure to different perspectives on those advancements. Students will have a chance to engage with marginalized views in science, delving deeper into those narratives that are often overlooked. Many of the historical figures in the role play represent a wide range of perspectives; thus, students are challenged to think about scientific advancements in new, unconventional ways.

Class: HSCI E-112: Science and Technology in Modern America

Introduction/Background: The course is structured around three major pieces of technological innovations in the 20th Century: the bomb, the gene, and the computer. Throughout the semester, students are required to engage in 1 of 3 debates addressing perspectives in science and technology through a historical lens. Participating students are arranged in groups of 4-5 and assigned a historical figure in the debate. They are then instructed to engage in dialogue from the perspective of their character. Note: Each 4-5 person group will embody the role of one character.


1)    Preparation for activity: Students will read assigned texts from the historical figures leading up to the debate. The first debate usually takes during the first 1/3 of the semester. The instructor assigns students in groups of 4 or 5 two weeks before the debate. It is highly encouraged that students work together outside of class to develop strategy, group chemistry, and researching their assigned historical figure.

2)    Rules for activity:

  1. Each student will have 4 minutes to speak
  2. The views expressed must not be their own, rather the character each student is representing
    1. They should stay in character as much as possible
  3. Students must use the assigned texts to support their claims.
  4. One student from each group will prepare an opening statement (scripted)
    1. Approximately 16 minutes (4 minutes per group)
  5. Each character’s groups is required to engage in rebuttals
    1. They should avoid ad hominem attacks
    2. Approximately 32 minutes
  6. Audience members assume the role of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Committee in 1923, and will ask questions of the characters.
    1. Approximately 20 minutes

3)    Steps of activity:

  1. Students read text from the following researchers:
    1. Charles Davenport
    2. Herbert Spencer Jennings
    3. Havelock Ellis
    4. Bertrand Conway
    5. Instructor provides background for debate two weeks prior to the activity. On the day of the debate, at the beginning of class, student groups assemble at the front of the classroom behind tables or podiums.
      1. i.    The Setting: It is 1923, at a meeting of the Immigration and Naturalization Committee of the U.S. Congress. Four distinguished visitors have been invited to debate before the Committee the merits of a proposed Immigration Restriction Act.
      2. ii.   The issue under consideration: Should Congress pass the proposed immigration restriction act? The act has been influenced by the work of Harry Laughlin, director of the Eugenics Record Office.
      3. Students are arranged into groups of 4-5 by the instructor, and assigned the roles of the aforementioned researchers: Charles Davenport, Herbert Spencer Jennings, Havelock Ellis, and Bertrand Conway. (See attachment for bios.)
      4. The debate should last the entire class period (approximately 2 hours); however, it is possible to use two class periods to complete the activity 

Follow-up: The instructor evaluates student performances on their observations. Students are graded based on their participation, and adherence to the debate guidelines. In addition, students are assigned a position paper due the week of the debate, in which they are instructed to discuss the issue they chose to debate, pick the side of a stakeholder, and explain their reasoning. Students do not have to choose the side they were assigned during the debate.

Comments: Students rarely have an opportunity to understand science in a historical way. This activity is vital in helping students understand the process in which advancements in science and technology occur. The instructor notes that students feel unconstrained when playing a particular role. They become less concerned about whether their personal views on the topic are right or wrong; instead, they are more committed to their roles, articulating the sentiments of their characters. Because students feel unconstrained, they are more inclined to purposefully engage with the material.


  • Timekeeper
  • Nametags
  • Podiums or long tables


Submitted by Nadine Weidman, History of Science 




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