Professor Uses Online Discussion, Creativity to Teach Course on Human Genome Project
October 29th, 2001 - Filed under: Cover Story
by Linda Hill
Typically, when college students enter an online message board they are likely to be discussing movies or the latest videos on MTV, but a select group of students in Dr. Guy Caldwell’s class are using their online time to discuss one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs ever – the Human Genome Project.
This group of 16 highly motivated juniors and seniors is taking Caldwell’s innovative new class, “Decoding Ourselves: The Impact of the Human Genome Project on Science and Society” through the Blount Undergraduate Initiative, a special, four-year liberal arts program, within the UA College of Arts and Sciences.
“The Human Genome Project is really bigger than man landing on the moon,” comments Caldwell, an assistant professor of biological sciences. “Landing on the moon didn’t really affect our day-to-day lives, but the Human Genome Project will affect our health care interactions with society through insurance, legal and social issues,” he says.
In addition to using the text, “Genome” by Matt Ridley for class lectures and discussion, Caldwell requires his students to participate in a regular Internet discussion/message board with other students in the class; the discussion is facilitated by assigned student monitors and graded by Caldwell. All members of the class are expected to participate in the discussion and must post at least one message/reply each week. Students discuss gene mapping and advances in genetic technology and chat about subjects such as genetic testing, gene patenting, genetic discrimination and related topics as part of their class assignment.
“We discuss many of the issues that come up in class,” he says. “We talk about how our genes may predispose us to certain behaviors and how our environment plays a large role in our free will to use what we’ve been genetically encoded for.
“For example, in the near future we may all be carrying credit cards that contain our personal genome information on them. Most likely, these will be scanned for specific characteristics. So, instead of students taking the MCAT or ACT (or other college admissions tests) they may use this card for admission to the UA Honors Program.
“My goal for this class is to create an environment in which students will be able to counteract their fear of these issues with knowledge, because fear and ignorance can come from a lack of knowledge. Nothing is more personal than our own DNA – our own genetic makeup – and the consequences of understanding that are enormous,” he notes.
Another unique component of the class will be participation in what Caldwell has named the Interview Project. “The purpose of this project is to evoke a sense of the place of the individual in society and for the students to probe that concept in terms of, arguably, the single most personal aspect of ourselves – our genetic composition,” he explains.
In the Interview Project, the students will pick one individual from each of four categories and interview each person on a set of issues related to the Human Genome Project. Students will independently design a set of 10 questions and ask those same 10 questions to a person in each group and then to themselves. Within the four groups, students will interview doctors and biomedical researchers; lawyers, hospital administrators, politicians or judges; rabbis, priests/ministers, or social workers; and someone from any other profession or job.
The students will record the responses of each person (by hand, tape recorder, e-mail or letter) and compile these into a written document that will include reflections and discussion on the answers of each person. “I hope this will help students broaden their perspective of humanity and what defines it, and how we view each other and ourselves in terms of our genetic heritage and issues surrounding it,” Caldwell says.
UA student Sarah Adair of Hartselle, a Goldwater Scholar and member of Caldwell’s class, says she has found the course “very applicable to everyday life.”
Twenty-year-old Adair says, “We talk about here-and-now issues and get a better understanding of what media are actually reporting. These issues are not going to cease in the next five years; we’ll be dealing with them from here on out. This class has allowed me to see not only the academic side but also the legal, legislative and other aspects. The class covers a broad range of topics – there is something of interest for everyone.”
Guest speakers for the class have included Dr. Kim Caldwell of UA discussing stem cells and Dr. David Wininger, scientific director of Atlanta-based Reproductive Biology Associates, the South’s largest in vitro fertilization clinic, discussing cloning/stem cells.
Caldwell’s efforts are more typically directed toward researching the molecular basis of childhood brain diseases, wherein he receives funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation and is a Basil O’Connor Scholar of the March of Dimes. He says he is “lucky” to have the opportunity to teach this kind of course in a program like the Blount Undergraduate Initiative.
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