Crucial Knowledge?

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At what age should people know about antibiotic resistance?

This is the question that has occurred to me as a result of teaching about genetic engineering, and testing for plasmid uptake in a Freshman Biology course.  As a quick aside – don’t worry if you, gentle reader, have no idea what plasmid uptake is.  But to get my students to understand about it, they needed to know first that antibiotics kill bacteria.  On a hunch, I asked all my classes the other day:  “What do antibiotics do?”

Any guesses as to how many kids per class knew the answer?

Less than 1 kid per class.

I was surprised, because a huge part of every doctor visit I’ve had in the last 10-20 years, if it involved me coughing and feeling like hell, is the conversation about whether I had a viral or bacterial infection, and hell no they won’t give me antibiotics if my symptomology was consistent with a virus.   Of course, I brought up this experience  with the students (without the cursing, though it took some restraint) to help them understand what antibiotics do, and what they don’t do.

Upon reflection, I remembered that they are 14 years old, and they haven’t been to the doctor as much.  It occurred to me that this could be exactly the right time to help them understand the idea of antibiotic resistance, and the inadvertent genetic selection for the so-called “superbugs” as a result of over-prescribing antibiotics.   My students are now growing into a cognition that is rather adult-like, and logic works well with that level of cognition.   Understanding this issue requires some base-level knowledge about cells and evolutionary mechanisms.

And address the issue, I shall, but sort of by accident, and not because the state standards tell me to.  Here are the standards that might call for something like the idea of antibiotic resistance:

13. Explains how natural selection favors individuals who are better able to survive, reproduce, and leave offspring (NM – II.II.II.12)

14. Analyzes how evolution by natural selection and other mechanisms explains many phenomena including the fossil record of ancient life forms and similarities (both physical and molecular) among different species (NM – II.II.II.13).

24. Knows that specialized structures inside cells in most organisms carry out different functions, including (NM – II.II.III.2):

  • parts of a cell and their functions (e.g., nucleus, chromosomes, plasma,
  • and mitochondria),
  • storage of genetic material in DNA,
  • similarities and differences between plant and animal cells, and
  • prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells.

 

These standards deal with the underpinnings that allow someone to understand about the problems of over-prescription, but still, it seems to me that an educated citizen should know the difference between viral and antibiotic pathogens, so that when they get sick, they work WITH the doctors to ensure the right course of treatment.

So I can’t help but wonder: should there be additional standards for science courses that address the intersection between the underlying biology (or Chem or Physics or whatever) and its use in the world?  If the application is contingent upon specific technology, which will certainly change soon, then maybe not.  I don’t suggest any replacement of the underpinnings – I am saying that there are some ideas and applications that every citizen ought to know.  Their well-being, and agency in the world might depend upon it.

This instance makes me think of a couple of other examples, one of which isn’t even science:

Radioactivity:  Most people don’t understand that something cannot become radioactive if it is exposed to radiation.  This has real ramifications on irradiated food.

The Electoral College: I took government in high school, but I only really learned of the importance of the Electoral College during the Bush/Gore presidential election of 2000. Seems like it would be handy for someone know about that BEFORE they turn 18, right?

The Global Surface Temperature Record: A certain Senator from Texas is espousing that global surface temperatures have not risen since 1998, using satellite data for evidence.  Alas, this data doesn’t really tell us accurately about the surface – it measures the temperature of the “lower troposphere”, which includes a layer of air six miles thick.   People ought to know that a much more accurate record (that does show appreciable warming) comes from ground-based thermometers. You know, where the people live.

So I am curious: if you are an educator, what are the obvious holes in your current set of standards that might be at the application, rather than theory, level?  And even if you aren’t an educator, what should we ensure our students leave high school knowing that we are not yet teaching, or we are teaching spottily?

In asking this, I realize that I am opening the door to idiosyncrasies of individuals – there will be some of us who have our pet idea that not everyone else loves, but I suspect that there are some topics and ideas that a lot of us can agree with. And honestly, if you’d like to proffer your idiosyncratic topic, be my guest – I’m still curious.

 

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When Project Rollout = “meh”

I should know better.

I started a project without running it by colleagues. It was such a good idea, I just KNEW the students would totally get into it. I had previous experience with Senior students who had utterly enveloped themselves in the subject: Genetically Modified Foods. This was a great chance to hit the ideas of how proteins are created in cells.

So here was the idea: I discovered that in 2013, a Senator to the NM Legislature introduced a bill requiring the labeling of genetically engineered food sold in New Mexico, similar to legislation that has passed in Vermont and Maine. It did not pass. Recently, this has been a contentious issue in the US Congress, with legislation introduced in the House trying to prevent states from passing labeling laws.

As I researched, I grew more and more excited. Look at all the issues coming up on both sides! Look how some people are using Biology (rogue proteins, yo) to make their case!   This will help the students understand protein synthesis deeply so that they could describe the biology around GMOs! It will help them take a stand (on either side of the issue), and have some agency in the world.

Thus emerged the task:

Write a letter to a NM legislator or a US Congressperson, stating your position regarding the labeling of GM foods, encouraging them to either support or block specific legislation. Your letter should demonstrate your understanding of the science behind genetically engineered food, and of the central dogma of molecular biology.

The project rollout plan was great.   “Bring some snack food for Monday. Your choice. Yes, soda is ok. Yes, Chile Cheese Fritos are ok, and in fact, PLEASE bring Chile Cheese Fritos. Yes, you can bring apples.” I kept the subject a bit secret – they just knew that a new project was coming down the pike, and it was staring with a party.

Bring the snack food, they did. We feasted on all sorts of genetically engineered corn snacks & corn-syrup-laden drinks and cookies. While we munched, I shared with them some facts about GMOs, the legislation that has surrounded them, then BAM: “You are eating genetically modified food.”

Their reaction?

“Oh.”

Also: <blank stares>

If ever there was a nonplussed group of students, it was them.   Did I mention that these were freshmen? Turns out, I have discovered, that freshmen don’t care about the same stuff that seniors do. Maybe it is the lack of background knowledge. (Or maybe it WAS their knowledge? GMO food hasn’t been shown to be harmful, as it turns out) Maybe it is their youthful feeling of immortality. Whatever the case, pointing out the fact that the food they were eating wasn’t even labeled as GMOs did little to move them.   Sharing with them the project task proved to be an exercise in “Meh”.   Or so it appeared on their faces.

IN MY DEFENSE – I had adopted this 9th grade biology class that very week: the previous teacher had accepted a job elsewhere, and as the school coach who happened to be certified to teach science, I was the logical fill-in.   So in a Friday-to-Sunday period, I designed this project, and went into the class knowing some of the students, but not knowing them as a group.

So, with the tepid-at-best project roll out, I was back to the drawing board that night. What can save this? Do I need to start over? The next morning, I had a conversation with a colleague who had taught 9th grade bio before (thank you, @jennbeck24) and she was not surprised in the least at their reaction.   We spitballed, and came up with some alternatives.

On day two, I spoke with the class: “Give me a signal: Thumbs up if you are into this project idea, thumbs sideways if you are neutral, and thumbs down if you don’t like it.”

Mostly thumbs sideways. Some thumbs down. Only a couple thumbs up.

“Ok – let’s consider options – here they are.”

1) Write a letter to a NM legislator or a US Congressperson, stating your position regarding the labeling of GM foods, encouraging them to either support or block specific legislation.

or

2) Write a letter to or article for nex+Gen News, explaining why students should or should not be afraid of GMO foods

or

3) Write to APS, taking a position on whether it should or should not serve GMO food in cafeterias, and from vending machines

or

4) Your own option (must include writing) that demonstrates your understanding of the science behind genetically engineered food and protein synthesis, and has some use outside this classroom.

 

We discussed the options, and especially the 4th. I had each student announce which one they preferred.  Several had some really interesting ideas for option 4, especially those who had been not very interested in the project the previous day. Now a new poll – “What do you think of the project now?”

Mostly thumbs up, a few sideways. I’ll take it.

 

LESSONS LEARNED

  1. If you have time (I didn’t), run critical friends on your project idea. Make sure the people with whom you run critical friends know something about the age group for the project.
  1. Pay attention to the kids’ response to the project. Had I just barreled ahead, this project could have been an awful slog. Right now, they are into it. The corollary here is that projects can and should be adjusted mid-stream, if necessary.
  1. Choice. Choice. Choice.   (I know this. I know this pretty well. Egad.)

 

NEXT STEPS

Now that I am at the beginning of a project, I need to be planning the next project.  My intention is to gather a group of students to help design the next project, in a similar way to how I did with seniors in the past. It ought to be interesting, and I can’t help but wonder if it will be more like a focus group than like a brainstorming session, but I definitely want to make sure that I have students involved before project roll-out.