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Epigenetics is the study of how external factors and internal cellular signals can lead to changes in the packaging and processing of DNA sequences, thereby altering the expression of genes and traits. Exploring the epigenome introduces students to environmental influences on our genes and the complexities of gene expression. A supplemental curriculum module developed by the Genetic Science Learning Center (GSLC) at the University of Utah brings epigenetics to high school and undergraduate classrooms through a range of online and paper-based activities. We describe these activities and provide strategies for incorporating both introductory and more advanced materials that explore “cell memory,” epigenetic inheritance, nutrition, and emerging connections between the epigenome and behavior. Finally, we outline recent reach on student learning gains using the GSLC's epigenetics module and provide connections to the Next Generation Science Standards.
An understanding of how genomics information, including information about risk for common, multifactorial disease, can be used to promote personal health (personalized medicine) is becoming increasingly important for the American public. We undertook a quantitative content analysis of commonly used high school textbooks to assess how frequently the genetic basis of common multifactorial diseases was discussed compared with the “classic” chromosomal—single gene disorders historically used to teach the concepts of genetics and heredity. We also analyzed the types of conditions or traits that were discussed. We identified 3957 sentences across 11 textbooks that addressed multifactorial and “classic” genetic disorders. “Classic” gene disorders were discussed relatively more frequently than multifactorial diseases, as was their genetic basis, even after we enriched the sample to include five adult-onset conditions common in the general population. Discussions of the genetic or hereditary components of multifactorial diseases were limited, as were discussions of the environmental components of these conditions. Adult-onset multifactorial diseases are far more common in the population than chromosomal or single-gene disorders; many are potentially preventable or modifiable. As such, they are targets for personalized medical approaches. The limited discussion in biology textbooks of the genetic basis of multifactorial conditions and the role of environment in modifying genetic risk may limit the publics understanding and use of personalized medicine.
Tuberculosis (TB) continues to be a serious global health problem, resulting in >1.4 million deaths each year. Of increasing concern is the evolution of antibiotic-resistant strains of the bacterium that causes TB. Using this real-world scenario, we created a 90-minute activity for high school or undergraduate students to use online bioinformatics tools to detect single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) between a wild-type and a variant Mycobacterium tuberculosis gene that could confer resistance to a commonly used TB antibiotic, rifampin. Students write a scientific explanation, providing evidence and reasoning, to support their claim of antibiotic resistance or susceptibility. The entire lesson can be found online at http://www.stronglab.org/taylor.
Although the development of next-generation (NextGen) sequencing technologies has revolutionized genomic research and medicine, the incorporation of these topics into the classroom is challenging, given an implied high degree of technical complexity. We developed an easy-to-implement, interactive classroom activity investigating the similarities and differences between current sequencing methodology and three NextGen technologies. The activity uses existing materials created by each of the biotechnology companies that outline their instrumentation and chemistries. Following this activity, students will understand the molecular biology behind these NextGen applications and the similarities to existing Sanger sequencing methods.
Optimal foraging theory is a principle that is often presented in the community ecology section of biology textbooks, but also can be demonstrated in the laboratory. We introduce a lab activity that uses an interactive strategy to teach high school and/or college students about this ecological concept. The activity is ideal because it engages students in a hands-on activity that teaches them a fundamental ecological principle; it can be completed in a short class period; and it utilizes a few inexpensive, easy-to-purchase supplies.
Using a design-based research approach, we developed a data-rich problem (DRP) set to improve student understanding of cellular respiration at the ecosystem level. The problem tasks engage students in data analysis to develop biological explanations. Several of the tasks and their implementation are described. Quantitative results suggest that students from the experimental class who participated in the DRP showed significant gains on cellular respiration posttest items, and students from the control class who participated in a non-DRP task showed no significant gains. Qualitative results from interviews and written responses showed that students from the experimental class progressed to deeper “levels of achievement” in cellular respiration. The data-rich tasks promote student understanding of cellular respiration, matter transformation, decomposition, and energy transformation — all goals recommended by the Next Generation Science Standards.
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