In conjunction with the Museum's current exhibition "The Genomic Revolution," this issue of Musings is dedicated to the challenge and excitement of teaching genetics. Rapid developments in this field are profoundly altering entire scientific disciplines, not to mention the teaching of biology and chemistry. The influence of genetics on our daily lives, ranging from farming to pharmacology, appears to grow daily, along with the complex cultural and ethical issues these changes provoke. The need for the public to be educated about these issues is becoming more urgent.
As the introduction to a National Institutes of Health education module on human genetic variation points out, "The new knowledge that scientists are gaining as they map and sequence the human genome is rapidly changing the practice of medicine, and it is vital that citizens recognize these changes and are prepared to deal with them."(:1) A key objective of the module is "to help students think about how the detailed analysis of human genetic variation is already changing their lives."(:2) It's also the objective of this issue of Musings, reflecting the goal of the Museum, as an informal science institution, to help educate the general public about genomics.
How can teachers build their own knowledge base, stay abreast of the wave of new information about genetics, and give their students the tools and techniques to make their way in the genomic age? The key, according to the Museum's Youth and Family Programs director, Ellen Wahl, is to integrate this learning into students' daily lives in a developmentally appropriate manner. In the In the Community feature, Ellen and her colleague Athena Ganchorre explain how to do this, and give examples of relevant community and online resources. Ellen suggests that to create an ideal environment for inquiry-based learning, teachers should keep in mind that "the best science generates more questions." Ellen's emphasis on inquiry in the classroom is bolstered by research by Karen Worth, a faculty member at Wheelock College and Senior Scientist in the Center for Science Education at Education Development Center, Inc. In Inquiry: Thoughts, Views, and Strategies for the K-5 Classroom, she writes, "Young children can and do inquire. They do so in different ways, depending on developmental level, prior experience, and context. From what we know from cognitive research, the context has to be concrete; the phenomena and objects must be ones children can explore with their senses. But at all ages, children do observe and investigate, collect data, think, reason, and draw conclusions."(:3)
Alexandria Wise, the subject of this issue's AMNH Profile, began developing her interest in science during visits to the museum as a very young child. Years later, as a high school senior and participant in the Precollege Science Collaborative (PSC) for Urban Minority Youth program here at the Museum, Alex had the opportunity to work in a genetics lab in the Museum's Division of Invertebrate Zoology. Mentored by Dr. Susan Perkins, Alex assisted Dr. Perkins and Dr. Mark Siddall in a study of the evolutionary history of leeches. In the process of mastering complex yet fundamental lab skills like performing a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and gene sequencing, Alex gained invaluable experience in how actual genetic research is conducted.
Not many classrooms can afford a lab like the one Alex worked in, but a working genetics lab is part of "The Genomic Revolution" exhibit at the Museum. There, biologist Dr. Jim Bonacum explains basic molecular biology techniques to visiting school groups. "I like the idea of exploding the myth that genetics is very hard, complicated stuff," he says. The In the Museum feature describes how the lab is helping, as Jim says, "to bring the whole human genome project home." DNA samples are extracted from cheek cells obtained when participating visitors swish a saline solution around in their mouths and spit it into a cup. They leave the lab with a sheet of gel in which their DNA sequence is visible in the form of a bright band. Back in the classroom, students who have sequenced their DNA at the Museum can compare it to that of other mammals on the Museum's Web site.
|A laboratory worker reviews a DNA band pattern|
High school teachers Grace Lee and Carmen Simon exemplify the conclusion drawn in Standards for Professional Development that "effective teachers know how to access research-based resources and, when faced with a learning need, pursue new knowledge and skills that are based on research or effective practice."(:4) In the feature In the Classroom, these two teachers share their hands-on experiences from their high school teaching practice in genetics, including key concepts, provocative case studies, recommended films and books, and how-to's for discussing ethical issues and making relevant connections between the classroom and the real world.
Educating a population in genetics means understanding and communicating the basic science that underlies new practices and therapies. This is a particular challenge for teachers, like Cindy Sheets, who work with gifted children. The subject of this issue's Teacher Feature, Cindy is a gifted resource teacher for eight different public elementary schools in Kansas City. The article describes how she planned a unit on genetics, and the resources she drew upon and created in the process. Cindy loves the endless curiosity of elementary school children, especially "the 'what if' questions that show the students are really thinking. And genetics is full of that kind of thinking," she points out.
|The human karyotype has a total of 46 chromosomes, with each parent contributing 23. Females have two X chromosomes; males have an X and a Y chromosome|
© DOE Human Genome Program (http://www.ornl.gov/hgmis)
Questions underlie the scientific process, and that of teaching science as well. "If we accept the challenge of the National Science Education Standards and use what we know from research and practice, we can provide environments in which teachers are teaching through inquiry," writes Karen Worth. "When children have the opportunity to cultivate their own skills and construct their own ideas and concepts, then they can develop an understanding of the world that is deep and real, and begin to enjoy, understand, predict, and generate new knowledge on their own."(:5)
To explore this issue, click on any of the buttons in the column to the left, or on any of the links in this introduction.
:1 National Institutes of Health, "Introduction to the Module," Human Genetic Variation (Washington D.C.: National Institutes of Health, BSCS & video discovery, 1999)
:3 Karen Worth, "The Power of Children's Thinking," Inquiry: Thoughts, Views, and Strategies for the K-5 Classroom, Foundations monograph series, vol. 2. (Washington DC: National Science Foundation. 2000)
:4 National Research Council, National Science Education Standards. (Washington DC: National Academy Press, 1990) p. 69.
:5 Karen Worth, "The Power of Children's Thinking," Inquiry: Thoughts, Views, and Strategies for the K-5 Classroom, Foundations monograph series, vol. 2 (Washington DC: National Science Foundation, 2000).