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October 1, 2001
Vol. 59
No. 2

Genetics: The New Staff Development Challenge

With genetics at the forefront of scientific research—and pervading news stories—educators must educate themselves so they can prepare students to make informed decisions about the complicated world that lies ahead.

The completion of the Human Genome Project ensures that explorations and issues in genetics will dominate our culture in the years ahead. Although educators currently pressured by state curricular standards may place a low priority on staff development that addresses genetics, serious challenges loom—and must be addressed.
Let me provide a personal context for the current challenge. Twenty-five years ago, if schools asked me to do a staff development session and I suggested a focus on our emerging understanding of brain organization and development, I rarely received a positive response. So, I would focus on what they requested but sneak in as much brain information as I could. Like-minded colleagues acted similarly. Teachers were fascinated, and districts and conferences gradually scheduled sessions focused on educationally significant developments in the cognitive neurosciences. Today, conferences on these topics draw crowds, and educators have moved toward a functional knowledge of basic brain biology. Further, we've moved into larger issues related to the development and organization of brain systems and the creation of appropriate educational applications.
Now, like it or not, we have to begin anew, this time developing a functional understanding of genetics. Dramatic developments in the field suggest we'll need to learn about such elements as DNA, RNA, chromosomes, and genes—and also about stem cells, retroviruses, cloning, and a host of other topics related to genetic research.

Pervasive Issues and Questions

Why is an understanding of genetics so important? Because we're already confronting a stunning array of moral, ethical, religious, legal, political, financial, and cultural issues that are emerging from genetics—and additional issues will certainly come forward in the near future. It's one thing to discover that we can manipulate genetic systems; it's quite another to know whether or not we should. A 3rd grader today will be a voter in 10 years, expected to participate intelligently in resolving complex social issues related to biological research. It's irresponsible for schools to graduate voters who don't understand the biology underlying the political decisions they'll be asked to make.
Consider, for example, the genetics issues represented by a set of articles in one newspaper that I read recently. The first article told of how police matched the DNA in a blood sample found at a stabbing site with blood in its database of samples taken from people convicted of various crimes. The accused had not been a suspect. What information does DNA contain that allows a crime laboratory to credibly match two tiny specks of blood? Does maintaining a police DNA database infringe on the constitutional right to privacy?
Letters to the editor addressed teaching the principles of Darwinian evolution. These principles underlie all work in genetics and are overwhelmingly accepted by the biological community. Yet, many people reject them. People in a democratic society have a right to their opinions. How can public schools reconcile the apparently irreconcilable differences of parents on both sides of the issue?
The food section reported on new developments in the use of genetically engineered plants in prepared foods and the concerns that people and government agencies have about this. What do shoppers need to know about genetically engineered plants to make wise decisions in food purchasing? Should food processors be required to identify products that include genetically engineered material?
Another article focused on concerns that advances in genetic testing may cause insurance companies to deny coverage to those at risk for a genetic illness that is expensive to treat. What public policy is appropriate for this issue?

How to Proceed

How do we teach what students need to know? A single high school course on cell biology won't be sufficient, no matter how well it's taught. We should insert functional and biological genetics into as much of the K–12 curriculum as possible.
It's not an impossible challenge. Genetics is about how to assemble a complex information system (an organism) out of a few production elements; the curriculum constantly assembles and manipulates information systems. For example, only 20 different amino acids can create myriad proteins because the genetic information in a protein is coded into the sequence in which the amino acids are assembled, and a DNA gene provides the coded recipe. Language works similarly. Hundreds of thousands of English words can be developed from 26 letters because the meaning of a word is coded into the sequence of its letters, and not into the letters themselves (for example, do, dog, god, good). Further, a multitude of melodies can be composed from different sequences of the 12 tones of the musical scale, and countless numbers assembled from 10 digits. Explaining how a simple sequential code system develops complex language, music, and math information is one way of preparing primary students for the genetic code they will study later.
Genetics is also about biological development and diversity, so it's functionally related to contentious social issues, such as racism—and also to the gentle observation of the differences among plants in a classroom garden. Genetics already permeates a school and its curriculum if we open our eyes to it—and make it at least metaphorically explicit.

A Staff Development Proposal

We've already demonstrated through our "bootstrap" understanding of the brain—acquired largely through personal reading, staff development programs, and conferences—that we can educate ourselves about a very complex biological system. A functional understanding of genetics can begin with a similar personal commitment. The list of resources on page 19 is a good starting point. Weekly news magazines and such journals as Discover and Scientific American provide credible current information on developments and issues in genetics. Consult local college catalogs for introductory courses on genetics.
Good secondary school and community college biology teachers are a marvelous and currently underused staff development resource. They understand cellular and systems biology and know how to explain it to those who don't. Almost all the biology teachers with whom I've talked recently have never been asked to design and lead staff development programs—and most said that they would welcome the opportunity. Convene a committee to develop a program for your district.
Begin with voluntary minicourses that meet after school for an hour or so once a week to explain the basics—cellular parts and functions, such as DNA, RNA, chromosomes, and genes. Schedule sessions and workshops on genetics on staff development days. Only a few teachers may sign up initially, but attendance will grow and ideas for other minicourses will emerge. Although the initial focus should probably be on simply understanding the biology of genetics, staff development must also move toward the more difficult, but important, challenge of determining how best to prepare future voters for intelligent participation in the resolution of the complex issues emerging from genetics.
The recent cognitive revolution initially moved into our profession principally through the efforts of brain junkies—a few educators who were intrigued by the brain and gradually taught themselves and others about it at conferences and workshops and by publishing articles and books. In recent years, many other educators have developed and disseminated simple credible explanations, metaphors, and activities that teachers now use to help their students understand brain systems and functions—and to connect their own teaching to current cognitive theory and research.
I'm optimistic that a new corps of genetics junkies will expend the energy required to begin to tackle their century's biological challenge: to develop scientifically credible and educationally useful explanations and activities that will help teachers and students understand the biology of genetics and learn how to resolve the cultural problems genetics will create. If we educators don't do it, who will? And what will happen if none of us takes up the challenge?

Print and Web Resources on Genetics

<BIBLIST><HEAD>Books</HEAD>Alford, R. (1999). Genetics and your health: A guide for the 21st century family. Medford, NJ: Medford Press.Blackmore, S. (1999). The meme machine. New York: Oxford University Press.Clark, W., &amp; Grunstein, M. (2000). Are we hardwired? The role of genes in human behavior. New York: Oxford University Press.Ehrlich, P. (2000). Human natures: Genes, cultures, and the human prospect. Washington, DC: Island Press.Gonick, L., &amp; Wheelis, M. (1991). The cartoon guide to genetics. New York: Harper Perennial Library.Ridley, M. (2000). Genome: The autobiography of a species in 23 chapters. New York: Harper Collins.Weiner, J. (1999). Time, love, memory: A great biologist and his quest for the origins of human behavior. New York: Knopf.</BIBLIST>

<BIBLIST> <HEAD>Web Sites</HEAD> <CITATION> Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory "DNA from the Beginning"—a multimedia introductory resource on genetics. </CITATION> <CITATION> Human Genome Project The official Web site of the National Human Genome Research Institute. </CITATION> <CITATION> Oak Ridge National Laboratory A primer on molecular genetics. </CITATION> <CITATION> University of Kansas Medical Center Genetics Education Center Lessons and resources from teachers in the Human Genome Networking Project. </CITATION> <CITATION> University of Utah Genetic Science Learning Center Information on genetics and related social issues. </CITATION> </BIBLIST>

Robert Sylwester has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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