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Sex & the scientific method: using condoms to engage college students.

Student engagement can be a struggle, but collaborative and active learning strategies generally result in better retention of knowledge (Baker et al., 2009). After teaching a course entitled "Sex, Drugs, and Rock N Roll: A Biological Soundtrack" that used music to teach biology, I stumbled upon a way to engage students in scientific method and inquiry at a level I had not witnessed in the past. When I came across the statistic that 15- to 24-year-olds "represent only one-quarter of the sexually active population [but] account for nearly half of all new STIs (sexually transmitted infections) each year" (Weinstock et al., 2004), the thought of using condoms in a laboratory became interesting. Questions like "What condom brand is the strongest?" and "Are all condoms equally effective?" place this engaging topic in a scientific arena. To gather more data, the same protocols were repeated in three more classrooms to look at assessment of this topic.

** Condoms in the Classroom: Introduction to the Scientific Method

I introduced the laboratory for scientific method with some statistics about sex, STIs, and condom failure and asked the students how scientists come to those statistics (for examples, see Table 1). Conversations naturally led into defining science, the parts of the scientific method, and basic data-analysis techniques like graphing, constructing tables, and basic statistics. The goal was to convince students to critically think about where "facts" really come from and how science is done.

Before the students formed small groups to design and implement their own experiments, we did a few exercises to help them identify questions that could be studied scientifically. If an experiment could not be done to answer a given question, I asked the students to explain why not. Some examples of these questions:

* Did drug Z153 kill the star football player?

* Is mutation the only way evolution happens?

* Is it right for stem cells to be used to treat disease?

Then I asked the students to modify each of the testable questions into a falsifiable hypothesis. Finally, they constructed a prediction for each hypothesis.

The logical and methodical design of experiments was discussed next. I instructed the students on what constitutes strong dependent, independent, and control variables and on the importance of exactly replicating the procedures. Finally, ideas about data collection, graph and table construction, and communication of results were generalized. Once the pre-laboratory lecture was complete, condom testing took up the majority of class time.

** Exercise: Condom Testing Materials

* Basic scientific glassware

* Graduated cylinders

* Water access

* Rulers

* Beads

* Clamps

* Timers

* Many brands and subtypes of condoms (e.g., lubed vs. nonlubed, ribbed vs. nonribbed, latex vs. lambskin, etc.)

* Computers with PowerPoint

Directions to the Student

Scientists are constantly trying to find the truth about the world around them. They design experiments and collect data. They analyze the data and come to conclusions regarding what they observed. Then their work must be peer reviewed, which means they must communicate their findings. Your goal in this experience is to use the scientific method to determine testable variables of the condoms presented to you. Then you must design an experiment and test them within your 3-hour laboratory period. If you are allergic to latex, please inform the instructor so that you can wear nonlatex gloves to participate in the exercise.

You have a number of devices at your disposal: general scientific lab ware and a large variety of condoms. Come up with preliminary observations regarding the diversity of condoms and then develop a hypothesis and procedure to test your ideas. You must make notes about your preliminary analysis, hypothesis, prediction, and procedure and then have them checked by the instructor before starting your experiments.

Now that you have your procedure, what data are you going to collect? Go to it!

Now you have your data set.. .what do you plan to do with it? Figure out how to create a graph that represents your data in a clear and concise way. Practice on scrap paper and discuss the best way to construct the graph. Once a consensus is reached among your group, transfer your protocol, graph, and conclusion to three PowerPoint slides and be ready to share your results with the class. What do your data show? Are there any trends? During your class presentation (5-10 minutes), you will be expected to discuss these questions during your PowerPoint presentation.

O A Few Examples of Common Student-Designed Experiments

* Strength: How much water can be slowly added to condoms of x-combination before they break?

* Size differences: What are the length, width, and pre-stretch volume for American vs. foreign brands?

* Stretch: How far will condoms stretch before they rip? (Students used different sizes of glassware or graduated cylinders to test this, or they used a yardstick fitted with a 50-mL conical tube on the end to measure stretch length.)

* Expiration dates: Does the condom's expiration date affect how quickly it breaks?

* Country of origin: Does the country in which the condom was made effect how quickly it breaks?

On a related note, all the non-science-major classes kept their experiments simple yet informative. The one class of science majors proposed and ran elaborate and scientifically mature experiments (e.g., effects of temperature on the elasticity of lubricated condoms) with better data collection and more refined PowerPoint presentations.

** Classroom Wrap-up

After the students made their presentations to the class, they were asked to write a 2-minute paper reflecting on how this lab experience was similar to what scientists do every day. Classroom discussion was then opened again to dialogue about science, scientific method, and, of course, sex. For example, students were interested in learning about STI statistics and how they were influenced by condom use. They also asked about relationships between condoms and pregnancy statistics. The students' questions stimulated more discussion about how to collect data to have strong statistical analysis. Finally, an assessment questionnaire was provided to the classes to determine whether "sex and the scientific method" was deemed useful.

** Possible Problems

Teaching about Sex & Contraception

Many K-12 school districts may not be comfortable with this exercise. However, student engagement is high, and in a school that allows sex education, the impact may be greater on younger students. If a school district has high pregnancy rates and is trying to find unique ways to teach about sex, this exercise may be useful. On the other hand, the data suggest that college students are very comfortable with condoms and enjoyed the exercise. The student poll showed that this exercise increased student perception of understanding the scientific method (Figure 1).


Purchasing a Large-Enough Variety of Condoms

American condoms are easily purchased at any local pharmacy and they come in numerous varieties. Some of the combinations that I considered were similar among brand names, like "ribbed" or not, lubricated or not, and latex versus natural. However, I then visited an adult store to find some non-mainstream varieties like colored, glow-in-the-dark, and flavored. (If you do not have an adult store nearby or are uncomfortable going to one, online sources abound; see Table 1.) There I found an Indian brand that had much smaller measurements than the American varieties. I also purchased some "French ticklers," which are novelty condom look-alikes, not condoms. Purchasing a diversity of condoms could be less expensive if you shop online; most dealers have sample packs of 100 for around $25 (Table 1). This lab cost about $100 for one lab section when we shopped local drugstores for an equal number of condoms.

Health & Safety Precautions

Some people are allergic to latex. One way to ensure that these students can participate is to have nonlatex gloves available for them to wear during their trials. I had a student in this category, and it actually led us to an interesting conversation about what people with latex allergies do for safer sex practices.


Timing of the Laboratory

This lab experience was carried out in three of the classes during a normal 3-hour block of time. The science-major class took only 2 hours to complete the same experiment, and they did it at a higher level of experimental design. This was perhaps because the entire class consisted of upper-class science students who had recently used the scientific method in other courses.

** Assessment & Conclusion

The level of excitement for this experience was higher because of the condoms. According to the student assessment tool provided, condoms were unique and unexpected (see Figure 2). Initial trials for this laboratory exercise were done with 15 nonmajors for a class called "Sex, Drugs, and Rock N Roll." To ensure that self-selection of course material was not an issue, an additional three classes of students were trialed. One class of science majors (Human Anatomy and Physiology) and 2 classes of nonmajors (Understanding Evolution and Challenges of Science [both part of our general-studies science requirement]) were tested by three different instructors, all following the same lab protocol. All three instructors noted that this lesson did not generate more interest in the scientific method per se, but it did get students engaged to actively participate during lab and to enjoy the entire experience. Students laughed, interacted with each other, and worked hard; a type of student-generated competition evolved during the presentation portion as to which group came up with the most unique and informative experiment. The students gave the experience an overall 96% positive rating (Figure 1); a total of 8% of the population reported that they were uncomfortable with the exercise, but their reasons had to do with holding the lubricated condom or some of the condoms' textures. All three instructors agreed that this is an exercise that will be used often because students enjoyed their time in the lab and the experience provided many teachable moments about scientific process (Table 2).

This exercise allowed multiple angles to be discussed with the students, beyond the scientific method. They asked many questions about how their results were tied to other statistical data on STIs and pregnancy. Therefore, students actively engaged in the scientific method while walking through topics of health, sex, statistics, and good scientific studies. One student wrote in their lab evaluation that "I learned more from that lab than I ever did in my other biology classes in high school or college." Most reported that they did not remember how the scientific method was presented before this exercise, or they reported that they had learned it only by memorization or through the use of textbooks. Therefore, in closing, this is an exercise that generated excitement and interest for students and that could be adapted to teach many different topics while reiterating foundational science like the scientific method.
Appendix: Assessment tool used in three classes.

1. Prior to this experience, how would you rate your level
of understanding of scientific method?

    1            2         3         4         5
  Poor                  Average             Excellent

2. If you have learned the scientific method before,
what tools were used to learn it?

3. After this experience, how would you rate your level of
understanding of the scientific method?

    1            2         3         4         5
  Poor                  Average             Excellent

4. Were you uncomfortable using condoms to learn in a classroom?

  If so, why?
  If not, why?

5. Do you feel that the use of condoms helped you learn the
scientific method?

   1             2         3         4         5
  Poor                  Average             Excellent

6. Did you enjoy this exercise? YES or NO

DOI: 10.1525/abt.2011.73.6.8

** Acknowledgments

I acknowledge and thank the Biology Department and the Intensive Learning Program at Roanoke College for providing the inspiration and initial budget for this project. Without the additional help of Michael Wise, Lindy Thibodeaux, Frances Bosch, and all the students that participated in this study, none of this would have happened.


Baker, E., Hope, L & Karandjeff, K., Eds. (2009). Contextualized Teaching & Learning: A Faculty Primer. San Francisco, CA: Research & Planning Group for California Community Colleges.

Weinstock, H., Berman, S. & Cates, W., Jr. (2004). Sexually transmitted diseases among American youth: Incidence and prevalence estimates, 2000. Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 36, 6-10.

DOROTHYBELLE POLI is Assistant Professor of Biology at Roanoke College at 221 College Lane, Salem VA 24153; e-mail:
Table 1. Helpful online resources for purchasing condoms and
finding reliable sex facts.

Need          Business or Company     Website
Condom        Condom Depot  
              Undercover Condoms

              Adam & Eve    

Sex Facts     Guttmacher Institute
              Family First Aid
              Sound Vision  
              Kaiser Family           http://wwwMorg/womenshealth/

Need          Notes
Purchasing    Condom  Depot           Free shipping lot of different
                                      kinds; foreign condoms available.
                                      Also can purchase different
                                      sizes here. Variety packs of
                                      100 available for ~$25.

              Undercover Condoms      Free shipping; a lot of different
                                      brands and kinds; mostly American

              Adam & Eve              Free shipping; a lot of different
                                      brands and kinds; mostly American

Sex Facts     Guttmacher Institute    American teen sex and
                                      Reproductive health

              Family First Aid        Troubled teen statistics on sex

              Sound Vision            American teen sex

              Kaiser Family           Sexual health facts about teens
              Foundation              and young adults

Table 2. Courses that experimented with using the condom
and sexual education methods to teach scientific method.

Course              Audience      Number of           Majors Breakdown
                                  Students Tested
Sex, Drugs, and     Mixed: 80%         15             3 Psychology
Rock N Roll         non-science                       3 Business
                    majors, 20%                       2 English
                    science majors                    2 Biology
                                                      1 Biochemistry
                                                      1 Sociology
                                                      1 Physics
                                                      1 History
                                                      1 HHP

Human Anatomy and   Mostly science      38            13 HHP
Physiology          majors                            9 Exercise
                                                      6 Athletic
                                                      4 Biology
                                                      2 Psychology
                                                      2 Undeclared
                                                      1 Chemistry
                                                      1 English

Challenges of       Non-science         22            7 Undeclared
majors                                                4 Business
Science                                               3 English
                                                      3 Spanish
                                                      1 Psychology
                                                      1 Art
                                                      1 Sociology
                                                      1 Computer
                                                      1 History

Understanding       Non-science         24            6  History
Evolution           majors                            5 Undeclared
                                                      4 Psychology
                                                      3 International
                                                      2 English
                                                      1 sociology
                                                      1 Theater
                                                      1 Business
                                                      1 Political

* HHP is equivalent to Health and Human Performance. Students in this
major go on to athletic training, health and physical education, and
sports management.
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Title Annotation:HOW-TO-DO-IT
Author:Poli, Dorothybelle
Publication:The American Biology Teacher
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2011
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