Some of the teachers came to the study group through the Gateway Institute for Pre-college Education, and others were Museum workshop participants or teachers who had conducted genetics-related activities in their classrooms. The Gateway Institute is a set of minischools in nine New York City public schools targeted at minority and low-income students interested in careers in medicine, science, engineering, and health care. Gateway's affiliation with the Museum has been growing for several years. They are also longtime partners with the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Cold Spring, New York.
Dr. Morty Slater, Director of the Gateway Institute, declares that "a knowledge of the genome is essential for people to make decisions about their lives. Without a basic education in genomics, we're leaving people unprepared for the future. We're committed to making this material available to high school students on a high-quality level, but we still need to figure out how to get these ideas into the curriculum in at least the next couple of years." So many of the major advances in genomic science have occurred since the new National Science Standards were developed that teachers have been left to wrestle with the related pedagogical and content issues on their own. These challenges range from how to teach genomics to students of different ages to how to integrate the subject across the curriculum. Here are some of the approaches two participants in the Genomics Study Group used when presenting the subject of genetics to their high school students.
Where to begin?
"Genetics is my favorite topic to teach," says Carmen Simon, who teaches biology at South Shore High School in Brooklyn, New York. However, she thinks the vocabulary is a particular stumbling block. "Students must learn that 'heterozygous' and 'hybrid' mean the same thing. 'Diploid,' 'monoploid,' 'haploid,' 'homozygous,' 'gametes,' 'zygotes,' 'genotype,' and 'phenotype' are just a few of the words that must be introduced before students can understand the patterns of heredity," Carmen points out. "Even though I've taught genetics, the human genome is a whole new realm. There's nothing wrong with suggesting books to read as alternative sources of information," she adds, recommending Gina Kolata's Clone: The Road to Dolly and the Path Ahead.
Grace finds that discussing Mendelian genetics still makes a good starting point, since "some of the kids may have learned a bit about it before. Also, it's a good way to make the connection between traits and genes," she explains. Her students began the unit on classical genetics by conducting a survey of the class "to see which characteristics they had in common in order to determine the phenotype and genotype of those characteristics." Next, the students learned about molecular genetics. "There's a lot of chemistry involved, so we spend quite a bit of time learning about the chemical composition of DNA." Grace makes sure her students understand the structure of the basic components of DNA, and "how these nucleotides ultimately link together to form the double helical structure." She relies on molecular modeling activities to show students how this happens.
What kind of equipment do you need?
Building a DNA lab is way out of reach for many teachers and schools, but not all hands-on activities are prohibitively expensive. "Two hundred dollars doesn't go a long way, and we're limited on how we can spend our money," Carmen admits. "However, many affordable lab activities can be purchased, and you can buy kits from popular science suppliers. One is a forensic-science who-done-it kit; using DNA clues you find the culprit, and it's fun." Another kit contains dyes that can be loaded into the wells of an agarose gel, which separates out the different components of the dye. "It's chromatography, which is basically what gel electrophoresis is," Grace explains. "Separating the pigments of the dye like this is one way to demonstrate the principles of electrophoresis, a method used in the lab to separate different sizes of DNA for further analysis."
"Most recently, I tried to bring bioengineering into the classroom by using pipe cleaners," Carmen recounts. "To answer the question, 'How do we get a bacterial cell to make human insulin?' I created a rectangular-shaped bacterial cell for each student. I used a circular pipe cleaner to represent a bacterial plasmid isolated from the rectangular bacterial cell. The students cut open the 'plasmid' to form the letter C and attach a smaller piece of pipe cleaner to close the circle. The attachment of the smaller piece of pipe cleaner represents the insertion of the human gene for insulin into the bacterial plasmid. The students' hands throughout the activity represent the restriction enzymes that perform the task on the molecular level. The 'plasmid' then contains 90 percent bacterial DNA and 10 percent human DNA, and is an example of recombinant DNA. Finally, the students insert the 'recombinant DNA' into the rectangular host bacterial cell. I then explain that if this were a real bacterium, it would undergo its life processes and, as a result, produce human insulin that can be used to treat diabetics. That was their lesson on bioengineering."
Grace also suggests having kids present reports based on genetic topics in the news. "It's a good way to track vast amounts of information," she points out. She also recommends The Clone Age, a film available from Discovery Channel. Carmen recommends Andrew Niccol's film Gattaca. She suggests that before the students watch Gattaca, ask the students whether they believe that parents should have the opportunity to go to genetic counselors to correct any genetic disorders in their offspringand then ask them the same question after they see the movie. "Students can discuss the term 'designer baby,' and whether internal fertilization in humans would become a thing of the past if all parents had the option of 'designing' their baby," Carmen suggests. Their opinions may change when they see a version of this scenario in the movie. "How would this affect our society, both the rich and the poor? How would people with disabilities be treated in such a society? How are they treated today?"
In the way of professional development, Grace recommends that teachers remain well informed about recent genetic advances and the different approaches to introducing molecular genetics in the classroom. This summer, Grace conducted a workshop on DNA molecular modeling at the Educators Institute on Genomics at the American Museum of Natural History.
How do you handle bioethics in the classroom?
Expert help on covering ethical issues and assessing the many sides to the discussions is available on the Internet. The National Institutes of Health have a database of bioethics-related sites. The ELSI Program, or Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications of Human Genetics Research, was established in 1990 to address the complicated issues that arise as the result of research into human genetics. The American Journal of Bioethics online offers a site called "Bioethics for Beginners" that offers educational tools.
Genetics across the curriculum
Grace suggests that science and history/social studies departments create interdisciplinary forums or debates in which students would address ethical questions such as: Who should have access to personal genetic information? Should law enforcement, employers, and insurers have this information? Do parents have the right to have an unborn child tested for certain genetic diseases, or traits such as eye color? Should parents have the right to have such traits altered with gene therapy when the technology becomes available?
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