One May morning, Atiyah Schroeter began her first period biology class at Capital City Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. by introducing a guest speaker. Dr. Ting Wu, she explained to 16 ninth graders sitting at lab tables, is an expert on genetics from Harvard University.
It was clear from the handcrafted double helices dangling from the white board that the class was in the midst of studying genetics. The students were well versed in DNA and understood that its two twisting strands consisted of nucleotides called guanine, adenine, thymine and cytosine—or, G, A, T and C, for short.
But Wu wanted to talk about something that is not often included in high school science curriculums. She was at the school to discuss personal genetics—and the ethical and legal issues that come about when individuals are able to have their DNA sequenced.
The geneticist is small in stature, but even with a laid back and conversational style, she commands the teenagers’ attention.
“How many of you have seen the movie My Sister’s Keeper?” she asked.
A few hands went up.
“Would you like to summarize for the class what that movie was about?” Wu asked a young girl a few rows back.
“Well, basically, the older sister had cancer and the younger sister was the only one who had the type of organs or blood to match the older sister, so they wanted to use her organs or blood. But the little sister didn’t want to anymore, so she got a lawyer. They just show all the struggles the girl with cancer went through with her family,” said the student.
“Did you know that was based on a real-life story?” said Wu.
Wu pointed to a photograph of Molly Nash, a little girl in blue jean overalls, kissing her baby brother, Adam, projected onto a screen in the front of the classroom. “Do you want me to tell you this story?” she asked.
Several students nodded.
In 2007, Wu founded the Personal Genetics Education Project (pgEd). Her objective was to narrow the gap she saw between what scientists can do and what the public is aware that they can do. She felt that high school classrooms were the best conduits through which to share information about advances in genetics with the public, and so she formed a small team of scientists and educators to design lesson plans.
PgEd provides these lesson plans—made up of activities, reading materials and PowerPoint presentations on personal genetics and how it relates to things like reproduction, health care, sports, law enforcement and discrimination—to teachers, free of charge. Every so often, Wu and other team members visit schools around the country to guest-teach the lessons themselves.
When Wu isn’t talking with teenagers in her role as director of pgEd, she is teaching genetics at Harvard Medical School. At “Wu Lab,” she and her team of postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, research assistants and technicians study chromosome positioning and behavior and how this plays out in inheritance.
“I’ve always been involved with discussing where this field is going and how we, as geneticists, can best make sure that sequencing will be beneficial and equally accessible to everyone regardless of their socioeconomic status,” said Wu.
With increased accessibility to DNA sequencing technology, of course, comes the need to consider how society should use it responsibly. Should people be allowed to test embryos for painful, deadly diseases that develop at different stages of life? Is it okay for parents to test embryos for genetic variants that are linked to violent behavior? Wu asks these questions and others on a survey she hands out in the classes she visits.
“In their lifetime, among their friends, there is a reasonable chance that they will know someone or they themselves will be given a dilemma that involves bringing in genetic information to resolve. It is at those moments you want them to have had something in their memory to help them know that there is often not a right answer—that if they come to a decision that is good for them, then they have a right to stick by it.”
Wu likes to use the story that was the basis for My Sister’s Keeper when she teaches high school students.
Molly Nash was born with Fanconi anemia, a disease that made her body unable to repair errors in her DNA. As a result, she was at huge risk of getting cancer. Her parents searched the world for a bone marrow donor, in the hopes that their daughter might get the transplant she needed to survive, but were unable to find a match. They were essentially preparing for Molly to get sick and die, when a new technique called preimplantation genetic diagnosis became available.
Using in vitro fertilization, doctors at the University of Minnesota created several embryos from Molly’s parents’ eggs and sperm. They looked at the DNA in each embryo and, fortunately, found one that was a viable bone marrow match and not a carrier of the disease. Wu explains to her captive audience that this embryo was implanted in Molly’s mother, and when the baby, Adam, was born, umbilical cord blood was used to save his sister’s life.
“What do you think about this way of saving somebody?” she asked the classroom in D.C. “Now, remember, there is no right or wrong answer.”
This past March, Smithsonian and the Pew Research Center teamed up to test Americans’ understanding of basic science. The survey, taken by more than 1,000 adults, consisted of 13 questions. What is the main function of red blood cells, for example, and, what gas do most scientists believe causes temperatures in the atmosphere to rise? The average grade on the quiz was a D+.
An alarming 46 percent of those polled said that the main reason young people don’t pursue degrees in science and math is because these subjects are “too hard.” That said, many thought leaders are of the belief that the future success of the country rides on schools producing a bigger and better workforce of people in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) related fields. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in science and engineering is expected to grow by 20.6 percent between 2008 and 2018, in comparison to an overall employment growth rate of 10.1 percent.
So, what gives? How can the education system in the United States meet these demands?
One strategy, as evidenced by the Personal Genetics Education Project, has been to bring scientists into classrooms, in hopes that they might bolster the curriculum, create working partnerships with teachers and, most importantly, ignite a passion for science within students.
For 12 years, the National Science Foundation executed this strategy on a large scale, with its Graduate Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Fellows in K-12 Education program, more commonly known as the GK-12 program. The program doled out 5-year grants to universities, so that eight to ten graduate students in science each year could work with teachers in local K-12 classrooms. The arrangement, at least anecdotally, benefited all parties involved. The fellows became better communicators of science. The teachers’ knowledge of their subject strengthened, as did their comfort level with leading experiments, and the students’ excitement for science improved. More than 10,000 GK-12 fellows worked in 5,000 schools across the country serving more than a half million students, before the program ended in 2011 due to federal budget cuts.
Some of the colleges that participated in the GK-12 program have found ways to keep the effort alive, even without NSF funding. Vanderbilt University’s Scientist in the Classroom Partnership Program, for example, partners graduate students and post-doctoral fellows in STEM departments at five local universities with teachers in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. For ten days during the summer, the scientists, with varying expertise—in agricultural sciences, biochemistry and civil engineering, to name a few—meet with K-12 teachers to co-design lesson plans. Then, during the school year, the scientists spend one day each week in the classroom, orchestrating hands-on activities. For elementary school kids, an experiment might be making ice cream using liquid nitrogen; for middle schoolers, perhaps it is studying osmosis in a potato slice, and high schoolers might get a lesson in inheritance and blood typing. This year, the program distributed 20 scientists to nine different Nashville public schools.
According to the program’s coordinator, Jeannie Tuschl, achievement scores in science last year at Hattie Cotton STEM Magnet Elementary, one of the participating schools, doubled. Pre-testing indicates that scores there will double yet again this year. She also says that schools often report higher attendance on days that the scientists are in.
“Having a scientist in the classroom sparks an interest in science that really has never been uncovered before for some of these children. It is amazing how all of a sudden they have discovered that science is really fun,” says Tuschl.
As opposed to a one-time, Career Day-type visit, the fellows’ ongoing weekly visits give students the opportunity to build relationships with scientists. “Many of them have never met a scientist of any kind,” says Tuschl. “Without seeing a scientist, you don’t think of becoming a scientist. It provides an opportunity for them to recognize science as an attainable career for them.”
Nonprofits, museums and other organizations have also found ways of incorporating research scientists in the classroom. ReSET, for example, is a 25-year-old nonprofit in Washington, D.C. that recruits mostly retired botanists, biochemists, aerospace engineers, statisticians and other scientists. The volunteers make six one-hour visits to city public schools over the course of a semester and as a finale of sorts lead field trips to places such as the Goddard Space Center, the National Zoo or a local power plant.
In another model, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) in Edgewater, Maryland, brings scientists into classrooms worldwide through videoconferencing. Mark Haddon, director of education at SERC, and Smithsonian scientists patch in for half-hour or hour-long interactive lessons from the field.
“The students have got to know where SERC is on the map. I usually use Google Earth to go from their school to the Chesapeake Bay, so they can see where I am in relation to them,” says Haddon. He takes on topics, such as blue crab biology, forest ecology, invasive species and global warming, that mesh with ongoing research by Smithsonian scientists. “As much as possible, I am outside. If I am talking about the Chesapeake Bay, I am on a dock. I have blue crabs in buckets beside me, and I pull them up,” he adds.
One of the strengths of SERC’s distance learning program is that it enables students to see scientists in action. “They are not wearing lab coats. They are wearing hip waders. They are getting dirty and wet, and they are looking at different animals. Or, they are up in the tree canopy,” says Haddon. “The benefit, I think, is to say, ‘Look, this is science. This is really interesting, and there are a lot of young people doing it.’”
For now, the success of programs that bring working scientists into elementary, middle and high school classrooms is largely measured on stories shared by those involved, rather than hard data. But, as Jeannie Tuschl notes, “Sometimes numbers just don’t show what truly happens between a teacher and a scientist and a scientist and the students.”
After the bell rang, signaling the end of Ting Wu’s class, I gathered a group of students to get their feedback. I asked them whether they thought it was a good idea for schools to invite scientists in to teach lessons, and I got a resounding “Yes.”
“If a certain scientist or researcher comes into class, it can totally change your perspective or your entire future, because you might all of a sudden feel like you want to go into something like genetics,” said one young woman.
One rather serious student admitted that he wasn’t sure what career path he would pursue, but after listening to Wu talk about personalized medicine, he was imagining himself a geneticist.
What struck me most, though, was a young man who already considered himself a scientist. “I honestly found out about some new amazing ways in which we, as scientists, can help humanity,” he said, in response to Wu’s visit. “Instead of letting kids die, we discovered a new way to help people live. Everything today interested me.”
The ninth grader was genuinely inspired. “We can discover even more,” he said.