Current Science Classroom
Molecular genetics is a concept that can be hard to engage teenagers in—it’s a bit imperceptible and the equipment used to do more interesting experiments can feel inaccessible. But recent advances have made science fiction-like genetic technologies much more accessible for the high school classroom. So where and how can teachers inject this technology in their classrooms?
In 2011, a research team led by Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier discovered that if they attached any sequence of RNA to the Cas9 enzyme, it would chop up anything that it found as a match, even if it was in the bacteria’s own genome. They soon found they could cut out any gene sequence they wanted, turning off undesirable genes and inserting more desirable ones. It was a precise and cost-effective method, making the process of gene editing much cheaper and potentially more widespread.
Starting a lesson with an article on CRISPR-Cas9 and the power it gives scientists over life’s most essential molecule would immediately hook your students. Science Over Everything has an article explaining CRISPR/Cas9 in detail.
After introducing a topic like CRISPR/Cas9, apply it to the standard of the structure of DNA. Many teachers have their students build their own models of DNA to help them understand its structure. Why not model gene-editing technology and have student groups make changes to each other’s sequences?
Teaching DNA Replication? The University of Arizona Biotech Project has several labs using PCR that you can drop immediately into your curriculum. PCR is a technique that amplifies DNA by millions of copies of a specific sequence. Students can use PCR labs for forensic investigations or sequencing the DNA of genetically modified organisms. You can purchase a classroom kit for a few hundred dollars, or if you are like me and think that building your own is more fun than reading the directions, you could assemble your own PCR system. Several DIY projects range from $300 to less than $100. If you have experience with Arduinos, you could put together a PCR system for around $85.
Transcription, translation, and protein synthesis can all be taught with a gel electrophoresis kit, which you can also make by yourself relatively cheaply (Instructables is your friend!). The Exploratorium of San Francisco has a good activity with different food dyes that model how different genes move from the gel matrix, making the lab even more fun by building a murder mystery around the different DNA “samples”!
There are plenty of virtual resources that can simulate any and all of these technologies and are good for helping students visualize how PCR, CRISPR-Cas9, and gel electrophoresis work. But, as Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell said, ain’t nothing like the real thing. Kids need to get their hands dirty in genetics and the equipment needed to do experiments has become much more affordable. Without a hands-on lab, genetic concepts are hard to grasp. Does it take some extra work? Absolutely. But like all great teaching, the extra effort is always worth it.
There’s also the element of controversy over the ethical concerns of this technology. While editing the genes of animals and plants could lead to more productive agriculture, the power to move from traditional breeding to altering an entire species is now in our hands. And though we may be able to save loved ones from heartbreaking diseases such as cancer or Alzheimer’s, CRISPR/Cas9 could one day be used to edit our own genes to fit our desires. We could design our children to have our eyes and our partner’s hair but we could also give them nearly superhuman intelligence or athletic abilities. Where should the line be drawn?
Taboo topics are something high school students are always interested in discussing and can make your class feel exciting, almost dangerous. When learning becomes an act of rebellion, no teenager can turn away. Regardless of how you broach the subject, kids will need an understanding of genetic technology to grapple with the ethical issues facing us in the next few decades. Any science teacher would be wise to not only give kids experience in using this technology, but also an understanding of the implications of its impact on our world.
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