Ready or Not

The genomic revolution is here, and literacy should begin in the high school classroom.

By Greg Fowler

Like everything else in the 21st century, science has become a global affair. Researchers around the world now have access to publicly available data sets containing the genetic codes of hundreds of life-forms. As a result, we are developing the tools to create synthetic organisms and tailor-made vaccines. We are also understanding more about the molecular underpinnings of cancer, and we are capable of editing the DNA of human embryos.

This genomic revolution creates a potential for important human benefit as well as social harm. The choices ahead of us call for a well-informed adult public capable of thoughtful use of the staggering array of genomic technologies coming to us at warp speed.

Public policy choices will determine future uses of genomic technologies. The quality of those choices will ultimately be determined by the capacity of citizens and policymakers to understand the social implications of using these new tools.

Studies suggest, however, that the level of genomic literacy of the general public is inadequate for helping guide policy choices in an era when personal genetic information will be increasingly utilized in health care. Consequently, it is of vital importance to ensure that future generations understand the genomic concepts necessary to make informed and responsible decisions about how they — and their children — will be living their lives.

The choices ahead of us call for a well-informed adult public capable of thoughtful use of the staggering array of genomic technologies coming to us at warp speed.

These concepts include not only basic scientific knowledge about genomics but also considerations of the ethical, legal, and social questions that will arise. For example, is genetic testing a wise thing to do? Should I have full access to my genetic information? Should I consider gene editing as a means of eliminating a serious disease from my unborn child’s germ line?

Laying the scientific and social framework for discussing questions like these in the classrooms of the next generation of users of genomic discoveries is the educational task that now lies before us.

For three months, the Smithsonian exhibition Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code was featured at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland. The array of interactive displays and supporting materials is impressively conceived and well organized. The exhibition focuses on “public education related to genomic health literacy and genetics for a variety of audiences,” and it underscores the fact that the burgeoning research in genomic science is “no longer the distant future, but already relevant to patients and friends and relatives of patients, which means all of us,” says Eric Green, the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, an exhibition partner.

I talked to multiple groups of high school biology students after they had visited the exhibit. The majority of them were encountering genomic science for the first time. They made it clear that much more than a traveling museum show — no matter how well it has been designed — will be needed to adequately provide future generations with sufficient information so they can responsibly use the plethora of scientific breakthroughs in genomic science looming on the horizon.

Genomics has to be made relevant to students and contextualized within the other subject areas in beginning and advanced core-biology curricula in the high school classroom itself. Achieving a deeper understanding of genetics in this way will shed light on more than just the heritability of single genes. It will also reveal the basic components of cells and explain how all the various elements work together to affect the human body in both health and disease. The advent of personalized medicine is pushing us to think more systematically about all genes and all of the simultaneously occurring cellular events of which they are a crucial part.

As an example of the kind of learning environment that connects the science within its socio-policy frames, in the summer of 2015 I taught — for the first time — a two-week, 15-hour course in introductory genomics to 10th- through 12th-grade high school biology students who had little or no previous exposure to the topic in
their classrooms.

The textbook for the course was This website is designed to encourage “systems thinking” by constantly emphasizing relationships — between the data and the circumstances in which they were created, between the lesson and the learner, and between knowledge and personal life.

The course, “Genomics: Our Future,” began with a human focus, introducing personal genomics by way of a web-based family history tool designed to explore our natural genetic variation. Using the example of three-parent babies (a hot news item at the time), a brief overview of the underlying molecular explanations followed: how macromolecules are built and function; how differences in DNA sequences arise, evolve, and are transcribed and translated; and how they cause inheritable differences in phenotype.

On alternate class days, students wrote responses to relevant social and ethical issues raised by assigned topics in genomics that they shared with their colleagues online. The science of genomics was interwoven throughout the course. Nothing was taught separately — everything was presented in the context of its cellular and molecular underpinnings. On the last day of the course, the students conducted a genomics forum for each other, their parents, and the director of Saturday Academy, a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)-focused teaching organization that administered the course.

Modernizing the current approach to genetics education in high schools won’t be easy. That fact, however, does not minimize the urgent need to design a more genomics-inclusive instructional approach to thinking and teaching the principles of core biology to students.

In the end, educators will act as the bridge that links society and science. The overriding and all-important point is that in the future, no matter which technologies or treatments are ultimately available to people, it must always be the teacher who first stimulates in students an awareness of emerging personal benefits and social challenges.

Greg Fowler, PhD, is a senior research associate in the Center for Public Health Studies at the School of Community Health at Portland State University and an associate clinical professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine at Oregon Health and Science University.