Ed-Tech Policy

Scientists Introducing Students and Teachers To the Benefits--and Risks--of Biotechnology

By Peter West — May 29, 1991 7 min read

When Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin, in April of last year, placed a year-long moratorium on the use of a synthetic protein used to increase milk production in dairy cows, it is unlikely that most of the nation’s science teachers took much notice.

But it is quite likely that a news clipping about the development found its way into a file kept by Paul S. Markovits, director of the Mathematics and Science Education Center of St. Louis, a research group supported by local school districts.

Mr. Markovits says he pays particular attention to developments in the relatively new field of biotechnology--more commonly known as “genetic engineering” or “gene splicing"--because for the last three years, he has being overseeing the development of materials to teach the basics of biotechnology to students in grades 6-12.

The project, underwritten by $340,000 worth of grants from the Monsanto Fund, a philanthropic arm of the Missouri-based chemical company, reflects the desire of the company--which was one of several concerns involved in producing the hormone that stirred the controversy in Wisconsin--to educate students, and potential future employees, about the controversial field.

Mr. Markovits says the scope of the task became readily apparent when, in the project’s initial stages, the teachers developing the materials surveyed their colleagues to determine what information such a curriculum should contain.

“What we did was go to teachers and ask them what would be the most important things to teach about biotechnology,” he says. “What we found was that a lot of teachers didn’t know anything about it.”

But like other educators who are in the process of developing similar projects around the country, Mr. Markovits says teachers and students need to know about a subject that could dramatically affect their lives.

“It’s a new science, and there is an inherent interest because of it,” he says. “It’s going to impact their lives in the future, and it’s impacting our lives right now.”

A ‘Revolutionary’ Impact

Biotechnology is, in a sense, an adaptation of techniques that farmers and botanists have used for millennia to improve breeding stocks and increase crop yields.

Experts in the field maintain that, while the public’s imagination may be fueled by horrific and speculative tales of dangerous new microorganisms being bred in the laboratory, the reality is that biotechnology is more accurately described as a refinement of such familiar processes as using yeasts to make bread rise.

The important difference, they say, is that biotechnologists today are able, in many instances, to rearrange the very proteins that are the building blocks of life to create new and perhaps unimagined products.

Writing in The New Biotechnology: Putting Microbes to Work, the microbiologist Cynthia S. Gross predicts that “the influence of biotechnology will be far-reaching enough to be considered a revolution on the same scale as the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century.”

“Some even predict,” she adds, “that the development of biotechnology could have more impact on society than the introduction of the computer.”

However, other scientists warn that the technology may also produce some unknown--and potentially dangerous--side effects, such as new strains of bacteria that might cause ecological harm.

In response to such concerns, the National Institutes of Health in the 1970’s drew up a set of guidelines for research, and in 1989 created a policy board to advise the Secretary of Health and Human Services on biotechnology. Other public officials, such as Governor Thompson, have also urged caution.

In addition, scientists have urged that students be educated about the field, as early as in elementary school.

“The public is on the very early part of the biotechnology learning curve,” says Susan Harlander, a researcher at the University of Minnesota.

Heeding the Call

Heeding such calls, several national organizations have already begun to develop precollegiate educators’ expertise in the field.

One of the oldest and most respected training centers is the dna Learning Center at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, N.Y.

Founded in 1985, it claims to be the first facility devoted solely to biotechnology education.

“We’re really the only program like this that has taught more than locally,” says David Miklos, the center’s director. “Most of the programs are focused on regions or states, but we’ve taught workshops for teachers in 30 different states.”

Mr. Miklos says the center has produced a textbook that is a standard work in training educators to teach about biotechnology.

The center also has trained some 5,000 gifted-and-talented students in the intricacies of molecular biology.

Meanwhile, several educational and biotechnology organizations are undertaking projects to disseminate information about the field to precollegiate educators.

The National Association of Biology Teachers, based in Reston, Va., has developed or is in the process of developing a number of biotechnology-related dissemination projects, says Patricia McWethy, the association’s executive director.

Through cooperative agreements with biotechnology companies, for example, the association lends packages of materials to schools for a period of months, allowing teachers to attempt biotechnology experiments.

The lending program is designed to circumvent a current bottleneck in biotechnology education: the high cost of laboratory materials.

“One of the reasons that biotechnology is not being done in the classroom is because it’s so expensive,” Ms. McWethy says.

The association also has compiled a sourcebook of inexpensive biotechnology activities as alternatives to the more expensive experiments, and “we’re receiving a lot demand for those activities,” she says.

Ms. McWerthy says the group is also seeking funding to disseminate a series of safety guidelines for biotechnology experiments.

“There is a lot fear among parents, teachers, and students about” biotechnology, she says. “Unfortunately, the guidelines that exist are really put out by the [nih] and they contain a lot of activities that are not permitted by high schools.”

‘Big Molecules’

Several local groups have also launched biotechnology-education efforts at the state level.

The North Carolina Biotechnology Center, a nonprofit, state-funded research and education institution, for example, has over the past three years trained as many as 500 high-school teachers, primarily North Carolina residents, in the techniques of extracting dna and splicing genes in simple bacteria. The center has conducted summer workshops at eight university-based centers across the state.

“Each workshop is conducted by a faculty member and a high-school teacher whom we have identified as a lead teacher,” says Kathleen Kennedy, the center’s education director. “We discuss different aspects of genetics, biotechnology careers, and the ethics of biotechnology.”

The workshops also teach such experiments as “Big Molecules Come in Small Packages,” in which teachers learn to extract the dna from bacteria.

“They break up cells in a test tube and spoon out the dna,” Ms. Kennedy says. “They can see that it’s stringy and sticky and viscous. The kids really like that.”

The center also acts as a resource to provide materials for teachers through an equipment-checkout program.

“They’re designed to help teachers that just don’t have the budget to do this,” Ms. Kennedy says. “In some of our regions these are pretty well booked solid for most of the year.”

The experiments that teachers learn are designed to be flexible enough to reach a variety of audiences, she adds.

“For some of them, who are teaching regular biology, these could be basically kind of a ‘gee whiz’ experiments,” she says. “But with more advanced students, they can teach the kids in more detail about what’s going on.”

Not for the Elite

Mr. Markovits of the St. Louis science-education center says that the Monsanto-backed intiative has taken a slightly different tack from existing programs.

“One of the things that [the course developers] agreed upon is that it not be something for the elite,” he says. “What makes our program unique is that we’ve designed this thing for the average kid.”

Based on the recommendations of teachers, the St. Louis project also was designed to minimize costs.

“We designed for it an average classroom situation,” Mr. Markovits says. “Our rationale is to keep the equipment to a minimum and to introduce the concepts in a very elementary way.”

In the 6th-grade unit, for example, students learn about genetic diversity by growing “Fast Plants,” a special strain of rapeseed developed at the University of Wisconsin at Madison for its rapid growth cycle.

Meanwhile, the St. Louis center is continuing to train teachers in the new materials at three dissemination centers located in Phoenix, Pensacola, Fla., and Clemson, S.C., and its board of directors is considering whether to contract with a publisher to disseminate its materials to a national audience.

Charles Hoyt, the president of the Arizona Alliance for Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education, a nonprofit group that is coordinating the training in that state, says that the interest among teachers has convinced him that a national market definitely exists.

“When I heard of this years ago,” he says. “I said, ‘I want this for Arizona.”’

A version of this article appeared in the May 29, 1991 edition of Education Week as Scientists Introducing Students and Teachers To the Benefits--and Risks--of Biotechnology

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