Leading a genomics revolution in the high school classroom

Teaching the genome generation

The Jackson Laboratory is leading genomics education in the high school classroom.

The rapid advance of genomic research has launched a revolution in laboratory science, health care and technology – and is posing unprecedented ethical dilemmas in the process.

How will the rising generation of young adults make sense of this new dimension in bioscience? How will they develop into the focused investigators, informed consumers and thoughtful decision-makers of tomorrow?  

The Jackson Laboratory believes that one effective approach is to arm educators with the knowledge and tools they need to explore essential aspects of genomics with their students. That’s why 32 high school teachers from across New England recently spent a full week at the Laboratory’s campuses in Bar Harbor, Maine and Farmington, Conn., this summer, taking part in "Teaching the Genome Generation" (TtGG), a free professional development program that ramps up teachers’ knowledge of genomics and provides practical, material support for teaching its principles and implications in their own classrooms.

Topics covered with participating teachers include molecular biology techniques, the use of bioinformatics and genome databases; and the social, ethical and legal considerations of personal genetics. Not only is the course free of charge, but participants are provided with the supplies and lab equipment they need to conduct the lessons and labs in their classrooms as well as ongoing support and consultation during the academic year. Participants receive a $500 stipend and their travel and living expenses during the week are covered.

The curriculum is adaptable for a range of learners, from introductory science classes to advanced genetics studies.

"This is an amazing opportunity and learning experience," says Guillermo Sarriera, 22, who has recently launched his teaching career at the middle school in Rutland, Vt. "JAX does a great job of tiering the lessons at different levels for different age groups and abilities. My 8th graders are definitely capable of understanding this material."

Now in its second year, TtGG has reached about 50 high school teachers through sessions in Maine and Connecticut, home to the new Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine. During the 2014-2015 school-year, seven Maine high school teachers implemented TtGG lessons in classes across Maine and reached over 200 biology students. Program organizers expect enrollment to grow.

"Word is getting out," says Mike McKernan, program director for STEM & undergraduate education at JAX. "There was a lot of demand this year, and we’re already getting applications for next summer."

The week-long professional development training is built around a series of six laboratory exercises designed to teach high school students how to prepare their own DNA – from their saliva – and determine the presence or absence of specific gene variants: one that affects the metabolism of prescription drugs; one associated with improved athletic performance; and one, sometimes called "the love gene," that heightens empathy and other forms of social bonding.

Teachers who participate in the program get their hands on modern lab equipment, brush up on basic skills like precision pipetting, and learn new procedures -- like preparing an amplified DNA specimen properly for analysis using JAX DNA sequencing. Laboratory sessions are led by JAX scientists and staff from the Genomics Education program.

Between lab sessions, the teachers participate in roundtable discussions about the ethics of using increasingly available genomic tools to identify, and potentially alter, the genetic makeup of individual human beings. These debates are led and moderated by Dana Waring, who studies the ethical, legal and social issues of personal genetics at Harvard Medical School.

Recent topics examined under the ethics lens included the potential use of genomic engineering technology to produce "designer" babies; genetic-based discrimination and the history of eugenics; and the potential misuse of being able to identify individuals at risk for developing criminal behaviors by their genomic makeup.

Understanding and celebrating the complexity of the human genome, learning new lab techniques and grappling with ethical considerations are all equally important to the TtGG curriculum, says Charles Wray, program leader and director of courses and conferences at JAX, since these are the skills and ideas the teachers will impart to their students.

"We’re providing curriculum content that doesn’t exist in most high schools," he says. "Currently, most schools still teach basic Mendelian genetics. Students are still learning to use a Punnett square to predict whether a pea plant is going to be tall or short, or what color eyes someone will have. Given the information that is exploding all around us, that’s a worrisome oversimplification of genetics and genomics."

Funding for Teaching the Genome Generation currently is provided by the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations and Jane’s Trust. Pending additional support, Wray’s goal is to train 192 teachers across three states – Maine, Connecticut and California – over the next five years, with a potential to impact more than 3,700 students.

The classroom exercises and suggested integrations with other academic disciplines are designed to support state and federal teaching guidelines. Students’ participation is voluntary, their samples are anonymous and participation requires consent from their parents.

In addition to paying for participating teachers’ stay on campus, funding covers all materials used during the week of training and provides the stipend to encourage hard-working teachers to invest this bit of their summer vacation – or give up a week of summer employment – on their own professional development.

In addition, teachers also receive a 180-page lesson book, all the supplies and equipment they need to set up and complete their classroom inquiry, and access to a range of online instructional videos. The Laboratory uses its own sequencing and analysis tools to process DNA samples from participating schools.

For Roxanne Cirrincione, who teaches genetics at Woodland Junior-Senior High School in Baileyville, Maine, the JAX connection is a giant step forward. "The fact that they’ll provide all the materials and access to technology to work through these protocols with our students is huge," she says. "We’re a small school and we don’t have the budget for new science technology. We haven’t been able to do the genetics labs with our students due to the expense of the equipment and the expertise the teacher needs to use it. This will make all the difference."

"I couldn’t have asked for a more fulfilling experience," says John Croteau of Winnacunnet High School in Hampton, New Hampshire. "This is the kind [of experience] that renews a teaching career. I can’t wait to share with my students."

Information about Teaching the Genome Generation is sent to schools throughout New England, typically through the principal’s office.