A Three-Dimensional Lesson About Genes and Gene Editing
By Deena L. Gould, Tyler Eglen, Tawnya Brusstar, Gene Moran, Tamara Merritt, and Ruth Wylie
Our students will face decisions about health, science, and medicine that we can hardly imagine. Technologies, such as CRISPR, that change the genetic makeup of living organisms are already in use (Doudna and Charpentier 2014). We are now facing the question of whether it is acceptable to genetically engineer children by introducing changes that they will pass on to their own offspring. How can teachers equip students with the knowledge and skills they need to take part in scientific and ethical discussions about technologies that impact the future of life on Earth?
We created a three-dimensional Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) lesson (Haas et al. 2021; Lowell and McGowan 2022) that uses narrative-based activities to guide students to build foundational knowledge about how humans can influence genetics and then apply that knowledge to ethical debates about gene editing (Mawasi et al. 2022). We integrate disciplinary core ideas (DCI) about how humans can influence genetics with the crosscutting concept (CCC) of cause and effect and the science and engineering practice (SEP) of obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information (NGSS Lead States 2013).
The core scientific phenomenon that students explore in this lesson is that humans can influence the genetic makeup of living things and that scientists, policymakers, and everyday citizens must engage with the ethical debate about the application of that science in society (NGSS Lead States 2013). While some people may believe that scientists do not consider ethics and values, scientists do engage in ethical discussions about their work and its potential impacts. For example, Jennifer Doudna, who earned a Nobel Prize in 2020 for the development of CRISPR-Cas9, is leading the push to engage scientists and all people in ethical debates about the possible effects of gene editing (see Innovative Genomics Institute in Online Resources).
In this lesson, we guided sixth-grade students to gather and synthesize information about technologies that have changed the way humans influence the inheritance of desired traits in organisms and the impacts these technologies have on society (MS-LS4-5). Through narrative role-play, students were the primary ones talking about science ideas related to cause and effect about how humans influence the inheritance of desired traits in organisms. The students’ roles were not to just understand how humans can influence the inheritance of desired traits (DCI and CCC), but also to debate the impact these technologies might have on society and the ethical and societal question of whether humans should influence those traits.
We used narrative-based and role-playing activities in this lesson to engage students in the SEP of obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information related to scientific and social causes and effects related to gene editing. Research has shown that narrative-based activities support middle-school students in understanding and applying science ethics (Mawasi et al. 2022). Furthermore, research has also shown that narrative-based storyline activities support middle school students in building coherence or connecting learning activities with each other over time to understand why they are doing each activity and to figure out a phenomenon (Haas et al. 2021; Reiser et al. 2021). We build our narrative around Mary Shelley’s (1818) story of Victor Frankenstein. This science fiction storyline guided our students to reflect on science ethics, the responsibilities of scientists, and the impact of gene editing on society. Many teachers and researchers, including Cavanaugh (2002) and Vrasidas et al. (2015), have used science fiction to engage students in thoughts and discussions regarding the ethics of scientific and technological advancements.
To guide students to begin thinking about the core idea of the ethics of experimenting with life, we displayed images of Victor Frankenstein and his monster. We invited students to talk about the images. Nearly all students said they had seen or heard a story about Frankenstein and that Frankenstein used dead body parts to stitch together a creation, a monster. They said that Frankenstein used lightning to bring the creature to life. They disagreed about whether Frankenstein’s creature was really alive. To record student comments, we created a chart on the wall with two columns that were labeled science and science fiction.
To orient students to the DCI (which requires students to consider broader impacts on society), we asked students about how the general public, or other people in society, felt about Frankenstein’s work. They said that the people in the stories were terrified because they didn’t understand the monster and didn’t understand the science. The people were confused and frightened because they didn’t know what the monster might do or what Frankenstein might do.
We also aimed to find out what students knew and thought about the science and ethics of humans influencing the biology of living things. We asked, “How might scientists today be doing things similar to Frankenstein?” Students said that scientists make robots, experiment with artificial intelligence, and experiment with dead things. We recorded these narratives on the science side of the wall chart. We asked students about the ethics and responsibility of scientists. Students noted that sometimes scientists get creative, or even out of control. We asked them to elaborate. They responded that scientists test their experiments on animals. They also said that scientists have transplanted organs such as hearts, kidneys, and lungs from one person to another and even from animals to humans. We recorded these narratives in the science section of the chart. Our sixth-grade students did not bring up the topic of genes or gene editing. We asked, “Do scientists experiment on genes?” Most of our students did not display knowledge about what genes are, how genes work, or gene editing. However, they were curious about how genes work and asked about how scientists use genes to change living things.
Finally, we wanted to learn about our students’ use of ethical talk concerning the impact of biotechnical innovations on society. We asked students what scientists’ responsibilities are when they experiment with life. At this point, our students connected scientists’ responsibilities with “working as a team, not causing injury in the laboratory, and not getting crazy or out-of-control.” Their responses indicated that they thought mainly about the scientists’ behavior in the laboratory and about related safety issues, but they did not think about broader effects or the impact of scientists’ creations on society. In our informal preassessment, we noted that the students did not describe long-term impacts of scientists’ creations, nor did they discuss scientists’ responsibilities toward their creations. Students did not yet show an understanding of the core idea that science is driven by society, specifically by society’s “needs, desires, and values” (NGGS Lead States 2013, Appendix J, p. 444 ).
In the Explore stage, we guided students to take on the role of scientists and simulated the process of using CRISPR to edit genes. We displayed noodle creatures, which are pool noodles with traits created from craft materials (see Figure 1). We announced, “Today you are going to be scientists like Frankenstein. You will design and make your own noodle creation. First, you will select genes for your creation. Next, you will put your genes together to make a genome. Then you will use your genome to code for, and make, your creation. Finally, like Frankenstein, you will bring your creation to life and see what it can do.”
In this activity, we aimed for students to develop a basic understanding that sets of genes code for a trait that is expressed in organisms. These sets of genes can code for observable traits such as eye color. These sets of genes can also code for traits such as disease resistance that students can’t see without special tools.
Throughout this lesson, students worked in groups of four. We began by directing each group to brainstorm a list of traits that could be inherited. Students listed traits such as how you look, hair color, eye color, and height. We then asked students to creatively imagine a list of traits that they thought would be desirable for society.
Next, we directed students to work with partners to build a representation of a genome that would code for some of those traits. We presented each pair of students with a plastic baggie that we labeled “Noodle Genes” and that contained puzzle piece–shaped sticky notes (see teacher’s guide in Supplemental Materials). We told students to select at least one puzzle piece–shaped sticky note to represent a set of noodle genes that codes for a common trait. We also provided each pair of students with a plastic baggie labeled “Super-Noodle Genes” containing square-shaped sticky notes that code for a special and highly advantageous trait. We directed students to choose a total of four pieces that represent four sets of genes from either bag for the creation of a genome. Partners labeled each piece (set of genes) with the trait that it would code for. Students generated sets of genes that would code for noodle traits such as sharp teeth, butterfly wings, great dance moves, and fish gills. They also created super-noodle traits such as mind reading, invisibility, and resistance to hatred/racism.
It is a common misconception that a single gene codes for most or all traits. To avoid reinforcing this misconception, we were careful to call each piece (using a sticky note) a “set of genes” instead of a gene.
Students linked their sets of genes together on the science notebook worksheet (see student’s notebook in Supplemental Materials) to represent a genome (see Figure 2). The puzzle pieces that represented noodle genes fit in the space and interlocked. The square pieces that represented super-noodle genes did not fit in the space. When students recognized that the super-noodle genes didn’t fit, we asked, “How can you make the super-noodle set of genes fit into the genome?” Students suggested cutting the piece to make it fit. We told them the technology that cuts genes is called CRISPR. As students edited, or cut, the super-noodle genes to fit into the genome, we narrated, “Gene editing is a technology humans use to change the genome of humans, plants, and animals. The gene editing influences the traits that the organisms will have.”
We provided each pair of students a creativity kit that contained a 6-inch pool noodle and a variety of craft materials (see teacher’s guide in Supplemental Materials). The pool noodle served as the base of the creation. Students selected craft materials to represent the expression of each set of genes from the genome they built. They used glue and double-sided tape to attach the materials to their pool noodles to “express the genome” and make their creation.
Another common misconception is that genes directly cause traits. To avoid this, we explained that genes increase the probability that an organism will develop a particular trait but does not directly cause it. We also emphasized that sets of several genes, not a single gene, influence the expression of most traits in organisms. In biology, almost all causal relationships involve more than one factor. We provided an example: “The genome may code for the propensity for good dancing, but your organism will still need to learn and practice dance moves to become a skilled dancer.”
We covered tables with large sheets of smooth white paper. We set out markers, thick rubber bands, and the battery and motor compartment from electric toothbrushes. Students used a rubber band to attach three markers in a tripod formation to their creations. They placed the motor compartment from the electric toothbrush in the open column at the center of the pool noodle. When students turned on the electric motor, the vibration caused the creation to jiggle and turn. As the creation moved, it left trace marks (scribbles) on the paper (see Figure 3). A form of this activity, called Scribble Bot, was previously reported by Wilkinson and Petrich (2013).
We began the third day by guiding students to learn and practice core concepts and vocabulary. Students placed the puzzle-paper representation of a genome and the gene-edited noodle creation they made in front of them. To learn vocabulary, we asked students to hold up the paper that represented the genes they chose. We asked students to hold up the creation that expressed those genes. We wrote “genes” and “expressed those genes” in a word bank displayed on the wall (see teacher’s guide in Supplemental Materials). To address misconceptions, we emphasized that genes are codes that increase the likelihood that an organism will express a physical trait.
We asked students to point to their favorite set of genes in the genome. We wrote a sentence frame on the board and prompted students to use it with their partner: “This set of genes codes for the likelihood ________.” We called on several students to share their statements with the whole class. We then asked students to point to the expression of those genes in the creation. We asked students to turn to a neighbor and talk about each set of genes in their genome and explain why they selected those genes. We asked them why that set of genes might be good for the organism or good for society. One student said that having genes for flying would make people able to reach places they had never been before. Our students imagined a world where they could genetically decrease the likelihood of diseases such as cancer. They also wanted to decrease mental health problems such as depression. They shared their desire to use science to decrease hatred and racism in society.
Next, we asked students to turn to their neighbor and talk about what genes do and provide an example. We also asked students to write a definition of “gene” in their notebooks. At this point, most students were able to use everyday language to tell what genes do. One student wrote, “Genes make us become who we are and tell how to make a person. Example, if you put intelligence genes in your creation, it would likely make it smart.”
We also directed students to tell what they did to edit the super-noodle genes to fit into their genome. Students recorded in their notebooks that they had to cut, or edit, the super-noodle genes to get them to fit into the genome. One student creatively wrote, “We CRISPERed it.”
Finally, we asked students to use sentence frames to discuss gene editing. We provided a prompt: “I edited this genome to code for the likelihood ______.” Again, we called on several students to share their statements with the whole class. We summarized by inviting students to add statements to the science and science fiction chart. They noted that their noodle creations were science fiction and that genes that code for life is science.
This activity helped our students connect their explorations, role-playing, and creations to science terms, share and defend their innovations with others, and demonstrate their understanding of genes and gene editing. We noticed that our science fiction narrative invited a diversity of students to confidently, imaginatively, and playfully step into the role of scientist and to talk about genetics, including students with behavioral challenges and who had not typically identified with science or the academics of school.
Next, we prompted students to think and talk about the impact of their creation on society and their responsibilities as scientists. We used a brief drama to spark discussion. In the drama, students imagined their gene-edited noodle creations scribbled on a favorite shirt. We announced, “Look what happened to my favorite shirt. Look what your creation did to my shirt!”
We prompted students to turn to a partner and discuss, “What happened to the shirt? Who, or what, is responsible for what happened to the shirt? Are you, the creator, responsible? Is the creation responsible? Tell why you think that.” Students disagreed, with several students saying the shirt was damaged while others said the scribble marks made the shirt look better. Students also disagreed about who or what was responsible for what happened to the shirt. Some students said the creator was fully responsible. They justified that the creation was not alive and that people should “be responsible (or get credit) for what they create.” Many students thought that both the creator and the creation should share responsibility (or share credit). We told the students that we were having a debate where we hear different perspectives about the impact of a scientific innovation on society (Mawasi et al. 2022).
In the Elaborate stage, students used their growing knowledge, online videos, character cards (see Figure 4; see also character cards in Supplemental Materials) to further engage in imaginative and ethical discussions about gene-editing and its potential impact on society.
We began by displaying Video Part 1 (6 minutes; see video links in Online Resources), a fictional video based on the story of Frankenstein. Students were introduced to Dr. Tori Frankenstein and her lab assistant, Mya. To prepare, we told our students that the scientists in the video work with genes. We also told them that genes are made out of a molecule called DNA and wrote DNA next to the word genes in the word bank. We also told students that one of the scientists in the video, Mya, has a problem. We asked students to find out what the problem is and what might have caused it.
In the video, Mya discovers that her own genome contains abnormal genes, but she doesn’t know why. After viewing the video, we asked students to turn to a partner and discuss, “What was Mya’s problem? How did Mya feel about her problem? How would you feel if you were Mya?” Students responded that Mya had something wrong with her DNA, something wrong with her genome. Students speculated that Mya might have gotten a disease like cancer that changed her DNA. They speculated that contamination from chemicals in her lab could have changed her DNA. They also speculated that somebody might have experimented on Mya and changed her DNA. Most students said they would feel worried if they had something wrong with their DNA. One student said she would accept the change as possibly normal.
In Video Part 2 (6 minutes; see link in Online Resources) students learned that Dr. Tori Frankenstein altered Mya’s DNA to increase the likelihood that she would be exceptionally smart and personable. They also learned that Tori was trying to eradicate diseases in humans when she experimented on Mya.
To set up a debate about genome editing around the video narrative, we created a set of character cards (see character cards in Supplemental Materials). The cards listed questions and beliefs that prompted students to consider the perspectives of characters from the video including the scientist (Tori), the creation (Mya), and the public. The cards also provided information to guide students to obtain reliable information from online sources, consider different beliefs or perspectives, and form their own arguments. We announced the structure of the role-playing:
We distributed the “Scientist/Dr. Tori Frankenstein” set of cards to a group of students. Some of the questions this group considered on the character cards were: “If you are responsible for editing Mya’s genes, why did you do it? If you did not edit the genes, why wouldn’t you? What do you think is the responsible thing to do? What might be your reasons, good or bad? Where can you get reliable information about gene editing?” For reliable information, see link to Learn.Genetics and link to CRISPR science rap in Online Resources.
We distributed the “Mya” set of cards to a group of students. Some of the questions this group considered on the character cards were: “How did you feel when you found out that your genes had been edited? How could it be a good thing? How could it be a bad thing? How might it affect your children? Should you have been asked? Why or why not? Where can you get reliable information about gene editing?”
We distributed the “The Public” set of cards to a group of students. Some of the questions this group considered on the character cards were: “Should you allow a scientist to change DNA in humans? Why or why not? Should you allow it for ANY purpose? If so, which purposes? Who should get involved? Where can you get reliable information about gene editing?”
During the group interactions, students read material and discussed the perspectives of their assigned characters. Students often disagreed with the other members of their group. For example, one student said, “I am Mya. I would feel happy about gene editing because I can be super smart and have super strength.” Another student from the same group representing the same character, Mya, argued, “We don’t want to allow scientists to change us. It’s our bodies and we should decide. The scientists should not choose for us. If my genes were edited, I would be angry and scared.” Students used the cards and online resources (see link to Learn.Genetics and link to CRISPR science rap in Online Resources) to elaborate on their ideas and find words to help them make their arguments.
After students discussed and recorded ideas with their own group, they met with a classmate from a different group who represented a different character and a different perspective. Together they role-played a discussion between the two characters. For example, a student from the group that represented the creation talked with a student from the scientist group. The scientist character argued that his motives were to fix problems in society, make people happier, prevent genetic disorders, and enhance human abilities—arguing that scientists should be able to get permission to make people healthier or stronger because it helps people.
We also guided a whole-class discussion. The group representing the public argued that scientists should not do experiments on people because it could be dangerous. They stated, “The public thinks that all experiments on people need permission from the person who is being experimented on.” The public also expressed concerns that experiments could get out of control and go wrong. Some students said it is not right to change humans from the way they were created by nature.
Students wrote at least two questions to ask other groups. For the class discussion, we asked a student to pose a question and then solicited a response from the other group who was addressed in the question. A question that provoked critical and creative thinking was posed to the scientist group: “Why would you be fine with what you are doing if you don’t really know what could happen yet?”
Finally, students evaluated the quality of the arguments. Students said they were persuaded by an argument when it considered more than one perspective, had good science, told reasons or motives, connected to the ideas they already had, considered the public and not just themselves (wasn’t selfish), helped them understand, was fair, or was the result of a group vote.
We summarized by guiding students to add statements to our science and science fiction chart. Students noted that gene editing is a real technology that can change real genes of plants and animals.
On the final day, students wrote to a policymaker about how to govern gene editing in society. Using the summative assessment prompt (see teacher’s guide in Supplemental Materials), we asked each student to write a letter to tell a policymaker what genes are and what gene editing is and to give more than one perspective about how gene editing might impact society. We guided them to make their own claims supported by information. We prompted them to use their science notebooks, the oral debate, the vocabulary word bank on the wall, online resources, and the character cards to support their claim. We used a rubric (see teacher’s guide in Supplemental Materials) to assess each aspect of the three dimensions: DCI, CCC, and SEP.
We implemented this set of lessons with five different sixth-grade classrooms. The lessons always sparked students to ask about how genes work and the current state of gene editing. The Innovative Genomics Institute (IGI; see link in Online Resources) and the Isaacson (2021) biography of Jennifer Doudna help teachers learn about the current state of gene editing. The IGI also provides educational materials that can be used during or after our set of lessons. We used these materials to introduce students to Jennifer Doudna, who served as a role model of a gene-editing scientist and leader for ethical practices in science.
In this lesson, we integrated DCIs about how humans can influence genetics, with the CCC of cause and effect, and the SEP of obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information. This integration helped us address the complexity of cause and effect (CCC) in terms of the probabilistic nature of genetics and the broader effects of gene editing in society.
Science fiction and role-playing helped our students imagine the multifaceted ways gene editing might impact society and provided a storyline for students to connect their sense-making activities together and bring our ethical debate to life. By bringing multiple and diverse voices, such as those of our students, into the public debate about gene editing, we might increase the likelihood that these new technologies better serve all people.
This material is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1516684.
Connecting to the Next Generation Science Standards—https://bit.ly/3D5rblv
Innovative Genomics Institute—https://innovativegenomics.org
CRISPR science rap—https://bit.ly/3SFS1Hr
Deena L. Gould (DNAgould@unm.edu) is an assistant professor in the College of Education at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Tyler Eglen is a graduate student at Arizona State University in Tempe. Ruth Wylie is the assistant director of the Center for Science and the Imagination and an associate research professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University in Tempe. Tawnya Brusstar and Gene Moran are teachers and Tamara Merritt is a principal, all three in Mesa Public Schools in Mesa, Arizona.
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