Joseph D. McInerney, B. Ellen Friedman
Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS), 5415 Mark Dabling Blvd., Colorado Springs, Colorado 80918
There often is a gap between the public's and scientists' views of new research findings, particularly if the public's understanding of the nature of science is not sound. Large quantities of new evidence and consequent changes in scientific explanations, such as those associated with the Human Genome Project and related genetics research, can accentuate those different views. Yet an appealing secondary effect of the unusually fast acquisition of data is that our view of genetics is changing rapidly during a brief time period, a relatively recent phenomenon in the field of biological sciences. This situation provides an outstanding opportunity to communicate the nature and methods of science to teachers and students, and indirectly to the public at large. The immediacy of new explanations of genetic mechanisms lets nontechnical audiences actually experience a changing view of various aspects of genetics, and in so doing, gain an appreciation of the nature of science that rarely is felt outside of the research laboratory.
BSCS is developing a curriculum module that brings this active view of the nature and methods of science into the classroom via examples from recent discoveries in genetics. We will distribute this print module free of charge to interested high school biology teachers in the United States.
The examples selected for classroom activities include the instability of trinucleotide repeats as an explanation of genetic anticipation in Huntington disease and myotonic dystrophy, and the more widespread genetic mechanism of extranuclear inheritance, illustrated by mitochondrial inheritance. Background materials for teachers discuss a wider range of phenomena that require nontraditional views of inheritance, including RNA editing, genomic imprinting, transposable elements, and uniparental disomy. The genetics topics in the module share the common characteristic that they are not adequately explained by the traditional, Mendelian concepts that are taught in introductory biology at the high school level. In addition to updating the genetics curriculum and communicating the nature of science, the module devotes one activity to the ethical and social aspects of new genetics discoveries by challenging students to consider the current reluctance to test asymptomatic minors for the presence of the HD gene.
The major challenge we have faced in this project is to make relatively technical genetics information accessible to high school teachers and students and to turn the often passive treatment of scientific processes into an active experience that helps students develop an understanding and appreciation of the nature and methods of science. The module is being field tested in classrooms across the country. Evaluation data from the field test will guide final revision of the module prior to distribution.
* U.S. Department of Energy Grant DE-FG03-95ER61989
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