By Malorye A. Branca
October 15, 2002 | Parents stymied by their kids’ math homework had better start boning up on their bioinformatics. A traveling classroom from New York-based Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s Dolan DNA Learning Center is helping to introduce high school and college faculty across the United States to this new field, and giving them the tools to teach it.
“This is the first time in the history of biology education that teachers and students have the chance to work with the same data researchers have, and in the same time frame,” says David Micklos, director of the Dolan center. “But most teachers are not yet prepared to use this new trove of genomic information in the classroom.” The Center is dedicated to public education about genetics, and, through support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, has been providing versions of this particular course for the last three years. The course will also be offered next year.
Students need to learn about genomics not just to prepare for a biology-related career. “This is going to be a century that is dominated by biological discovery related to DNA and genetics,” says Robert Sylwester, emeritus professor of education at the University of Oregon. “Given all the moral, ethical, economic, and political decisions that will emerge out of new discoveries in this field, how could you be a functioning citizen without knowing about it?”
Teachers face major challenges in bringing bioinformatics into the classroom, chiefly learning the stuff themselves and then getting their hands on equipment and supplies to teach it. The topic of DNA is also sensitive in some schools, because it relates to Darwinian evolution.
About 20 high school or college teachers attended each of the six Dolan Center workshops held across the country this year. Entry to the course is competitive. Teachers have to demonstrate both that they are capable of keeping up, and that they will put their new learning to good use.
Making the Abstract Concrete
The course is taught by researchers-turned-tutors, and uses a set of laptops preloaded with bioinformatics programs and Web links. Teachers do a combination of wet lab, computer-based, and pen-and-paper exercises to grasp concepts and gain experience with complicated tools.
The exercises include amplifying small slices of their own DNA from a saliva sample using PCR (polymerase chain reaction). They also learn about things like gene structure, sequence comparison, database searching, and human genetic variation. At one point, they compare a small section of their own chromosome 16 sequence to that of other people in populations from around the world, as well as putative human ancestors such as Neandertal and Lake Mungo Man.
“It is very hard to learn about these things without hands on experience because so many of the concepts are abstract,” says Sandra Porter of Seattle-based bioinformatics firm Geospiza Inc. “To have the teachers looking at their own DNA samples and seeing the results makes it all come alive.”
While it can be “confusing at first,” the course delivers for teachers like Donald Bockler, from Arlington High School in Arlington, Mass., who attended the August session held at the Whitehead Institute. “Finding intros and exons finally came clear to me here. Doing the hands-on work, and having the computers available, you just can’t get any better than that,” he says.
The experiments are designed to help the teachers learn and to engage students. “Anything that’s about them really grabs their attention,” says Sheryl Dominic, a biology teacher at Deering High School in Portland, Maine. “[The students are] going to love looking at their own DNA.” Sophisticated, yet free, online tools such as the National Center for Biotechnology Information’s CN3D — an application for viewing and manipulating 3-D structures (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/Structure/CN3D/cn3d.shtml) -- are also likely to be hits with students.
“There are many bioinformatics tools, and it’s often hard to find just the right ones for the lab you want to do,” says Dolan Center instructor Uwe Hilgert. “We try to give the teachers what they need so things will work when they are back in their own classrooms.”
Teachers also get invaluable tips, such as how to get good results from finicky instruments or supplies, managing issues of genetic privacy (use appropriate consent forms and stick to disease-neutral parts of the genome), and approaches that have worked for other teachers.
Industry, Educators Team Up
A growing number of educational projects like the Dolan course are springing up, many involving industry. Geospiza recently received a half-million-dollar grant from the National Science Foundation to continue its longstanding work producing bioinformatics education materials, including free online tutorials.
Cambridge, Mass.-based Biogen Inc. just opened a Community Laboratory for public school students, where molecular genetics will be among the subjects taught. Monsanto Co. has been supporting St. Louis-based Washington University’s Modern Genetics for All Students program, which has reached more than 16,775 high school students since 1992. Roche Group, meanwhile, recently distributed more than 200,000 copies of a free CD on Genetics Education, which is now available in several languages.
Many industry leaders see this effort as crucial and underserved. “It should have been, to some extent at least, the Human Genome Project’s responsibility to educate the public about genomics,” says Klaus Lindpaintner, head of Roche Genetics. “They have failed, and now the ball is in all of our courts.”
Whoever’s job it was to begin with, ultimately, it is the responsibility of teachers to carry that ball. Hopefully, they’ll keep getting more help from all sides with that task.