Ellen Wahl, the Youth and Family Programs Director at the Museum, points out that genetics is everywhere. "It's in the news, it's in your hospital, it's in the grocery store. It's ubiquitousand it's changing the way people think about the world around them." She thinks that those who teach science now face a daunting task: "They can't fit it all in anymore. What used to be manageable to teach in a year has quadrupled, especially in biology, because of the genomic revolution. The traditional model separating the disciplines of science is no longer applicable." Yet genetic literacy is a must in order for people to understand the vast implications of this revolutionfrom managing personal health to shaping public policy about biotechnology and privacy issues concerning genetic information.
|Ellen Wahl, Youth and Family Programs Director at the American Museum of Natural History.|
This confronts teachers at every grade level with a challenging but exciting charge. How can they build their own knowledge base, stay abreast of the avalanche of information, and give their students the tools and techniques to make their way in a world in which genomics is reshaping many aspects of daily life? (Genetics is the study of individual genes; genomics is the study of the complete genetic blueprintthe genomeof a particular organism.) The key in teaching genomics, and the ever-changing ethical implications of advances in biotechnology, is to integrate this learning into students' daily lives. One way to do this is to take advantage of resources in your community and online.
"The first thing is to make it simple."
Reassuringly, that's where Ellen Wahl begins. "Start with the fact that everything that grows has a genetic base," she suggests. "The trees and plants, the family pets, the stuff in the grocery store; they're all connected to genetics. It's all around you." Ellen believes that it's important to start with the normal and the familiar, especially for the youngest children. "Developmentally, you really have to know how children, in each stage of their lives, feel about themselves as physiological and emotional beings," she points out. "Then you can build on this knowledge. Yes, genetics is about cloning and genetic diseases, but it's also about growth and development, and about every living thing on Earth."
Don't go it alonefind local or online resources
Ellen urges teachers to go out and find the resources and partners in the community that will enable them to become, and to stay, well informed. Partnerships can take many forms, and she suggests that teachers think hard about the age and developmental level of their students in considering what would be age-appropriate and how the class will benefit from these relationships.
Younger children can learn a lot from visits to such local resources as:
- zoos and botanical gardens
Plants and animals of different species illustrate the genetic biodiversity upon which life on Earth depends. Students can look at species that resemble each other and begin to ask questions like, "What makes a horse different from a zebra?" Such comparisons allow people to consider the genetic distance between the two related organisms, and the way subtle genetic differences can cause huge differences in appearance and behavior.
- a grocery store
The variety and cosmetic "perfection" of the food on the shelves can lead to discussions about why genetic variation exists, and which foods are genetically engineered and why. One AMNH teacher always puts jam on her toast. One day she noticed a big sticker on the jar that said, "GMO free," which made her realize that many more foods must contain GMOs (genetically modified organisms) than she had previously thought. Do you know if your kitchen is full of GMOs? Consider having students investigate the foods in their homes or local stores.
|A sample of corn varieties.|
- a farm
How many cropsor variations of a single cropdoes the farmer grow? How did he or she make those decisions? Looking at crops and the variations among them may indicate which are genetically modified, but not the reason behind the modification. Students should think about some different motivations, such as a crop that ripens faster, that's resistant to insects, or that is sturdy enough to ship without bruising.
- a dog breeder (or breeder of some other domesticated animal)
What traits do breeders select for, and why? When did humans become genetic engineers? Start with an example of something we have been engineering for a long time, like dogs to herd livestock and guard our homes. Which were the first dogs to be bred for these purposes? How many dog breeds are presently registered by the American Kennel Club? What cultural and economic purpose do the students think such diversity serves?
As students go up the developmental scale, they can handle more complex concepts. Partnerships with institutions where the central thinking about genomics education is taking place become appropriate at this point. So do partnerships with places with the scientific equipment and/or intellectual capital to help you and your students address the medical, social, and ethical aspects of the study of genetics. These include:
- hospitals and laboratories
A paramount resource is the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, in New York, which makes most of its resources available online. This center for molecular genetics research is home to the DNA Learning Center, the world's first science center devoted entirely to public genetics education. Classes and curricula are available for students in elementary school through college, along with hands-on activities, lab techniques, career counseling, and information about internships, setting up labs, and establishing mentoring relationships. The center even has interactive labs for students who don't have access to a real genetics laboratory.
Another excellent resource is the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), whose Pre-College Science Education Program engages K-12 students, teachers, and families in science education through grants, programs, meetings, and events. A goal is to provide teachers with research opportunities and access to new teaching tools, and to encourage students to pursue scientific careers. HHMI features a collection of sites "For Young Scientists" on its homepage as well. These sites include "Ask a Scientist" and "BioInteractive.Org." You can also check on their Web site to see what institutions in your area HHMI might be supporting.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has a science education program that offers teachers a wide range of resources, including curriculum supplements, a science-fair project resource guide, and a new Web-based publication dedicated to bringing cutting-edge biomedical research into high school classrooms.
Within NIH, the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) also has a collection of educational resources. One is a report produced by the Ethical, Legal and Social Implications (ELSI) program of the Human Genome Project. This report lists ELSI goals and related research questions and education activities. Although the list of open-ended questions was written in 1998, the questions are still valid, and can be used to generate conversation in class or as topics for research papers. Also on the NHGRI site within the Division of Intramural Research, the Office of Science Education and Outreach lists several resources, including a genetics glossary and an illustration archive.
- pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies
Visit local companies doing research in genetics to see where their interests are focused, what growth areas they envision, and what kinds of expertise they call upon. Keep in mind that these are for-profit institutions that promote their own products and research priorities, but many are genuinely committed to increasing genetic literacy.
- professional organizations
Contact the American Physiological Society, an international professional organization with an education division devoted to helping students learn about the physiological sciences. The largest membership organization of scientists in the world, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has a helpful directory of educational and human resources programs.
Athena Ganchorre, Coordinator of the Precollege Science Collaborative (PSC) and who works closely with Ellen Wahl, points out that most universities have departments that study different aspects of genetics. "First go online and look at the faculty in the biology, genetics, biochemistry or molecular biology departments," she suggests. "See who's doing work relevant to what you're studying. Look up their publications, and, better yet, talk to the professor. They often have email addresses or contact information. Ask for a reprint, start a dialogue, and see where it leads."
|Athena Ganchorre, Coordinator of the Pre-College Science Collaborative at the American Museum of Natural History.|
For those who can make it to the New York area, Athena also strongly recommends a visit to the current exhibition, "The Genomic Revolution," at the American Museum of Natural History. It will be open through January 31, 2002. "It's a wonderful place to go to get a great deal of information about everything, from the basic workings of geneticshow life passes from one gene to the nextto genetic testing and diseases associated with genes, the importance of understanding variation and biodiversity on a genetic level, genetically modified food developments, and the related ethical and policy issues," Athena says. If you can't make the trip, take a virtual tour of the exhibition. All the text, images, video, and stories presented in the exhibition are available online.
Check out the news
"How is the media dealing with genomics? What does your local newspaper have to say about the subject?" Ellen asks. Whether for students researching a paper, or for teachers trying to stay abreast of the latest issues and new developments in the field, newspapers and magazines are a valuable source of information. Each Tuesday, The New York Times contains a section devoted to science that often covers breaking news in genetics. For selected New York Times articles with companion activities, explore the NY Times Learning Network Web site. This site is a free service for students in grades 3-12, their teachers, and parents. The site is updated Monday through Friday throughout the year. Athena also strongly recommends both Science magazine and Nature magazine for timely, readable articles, "Science in particular because they publish many issues dedicated to the human genome project alone."
An interdisciplinary approach to the ethical issues
More problematic than basic instruction about genetics is addressing related social and ethical issues. "They're really very complicated," Ellen cautions. "You never know what's going to make a child uncomfortable or worried. There's a lot of uncertainty about what things can be revealed and how that information could be applied, especially for people who are disenfranchised." Yet delving into these ethical topics is essential in order to help children apply what they're learning to real-world situations and decisions.
Such inquiry can involve many academic disciplines. "You could talk about all of the historical efforts to group people according to characteristics, some of which continue to be associated with genetics. Look at the search for the 'math gene,' or research all the head measurements related to race in the Musée de l'Homme in Paris. The discipline of anthropology is trying to figure out what differentiates groups of humans. You can have a field day looking at all the issues in social science and history," Ellen says. "The implication is that you have to have a really interdisciplinary approach to teaching, and that in fact any living object is food for analysis."
Pathways to new careers
No longer do you have to be a biologist to study genetics, and biology itself isn't what it used to be. The intrinsically interdisciplinary nature of genetics is blurring the boundaries between what once were separate academic and scientific disciplines, such as mathematics, computer science, biology, and chemistry. It's generating entirely new kinds of science careers, and another classroom activity is exposing students to this ever-evolving range of possibilities. Science magazine is a good place to find articles that describe these new careers.
"Twenty-five years ago, a teacher could say, 'There are other things to be besides a lawyer, a doctor, and a teacher,'" Ellen points out. Now you can say, 'We're only beginning to imagine what kinds of jobs will be out there.' We had no concept that technology would allow for this whole creation of workforce needs." The genomics revolution has created a whole array of technical skills, such as doing DNA extractions and gel electrophoresis, that younger and younger people are capable of learning. As Ellen says, "The mastery of any skill builds confidence, and that confidence is really critical to young people who now have an opportunity to participate in cutting-edge work and really contribute to the knowledge base."
Keeping up with a moving target
Instead of being intimidated or bewildered by the rate of new discoveries in the field of genetics, Ellen suggests that teachers keep in mind that "the best science generates more questions." The fact that questions may outnumber answers, she says, "is completely consistent with the essence of our professionmaking teaching and learning science more like what science really is. Yes, there are zillions of questions here, and yes, they're being generated faster than ever before because of technological advancesbut that's what scientific inquiry is all about."
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