GenePalette Provides a New Way for Students to Learn Science

photo 3By Mica Pollock, Director, CREATE and Cristina Trecha, Director, San Diego Science Project

The San Diego Science Project had teachers asking this question: Just what does it mean to “share” DNA with a banana?

On Saturday, October 4, 2014, a team of San Diego Science Project high school teachers spent the morning at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center with UC San Diego postdocs, graduate students, lecturers and alumnae. In a half day of exploration culminating in a work session at the Fleet’s Teacher Think Tank, teachers were introduced to the Fleet’s new Smithsonian exhibit on the genome and to GenePalette, a free genome visualization tool developed by UC San Diego professor James Posakony’s lab. The combined activities shared new tools enabling classrooms to look more deeply at claims about our genome.

The CREATE STEM Success Initiative (CSSI) at UC San Diego seeks to bridge the worlds of UC San Diego science and practicing K-12 teachers of science, to leverage UC San Diego STEM resources in the K-12 community. The San Diego Science Project (SDSP), the teacher professional development arm of the CSSI, set up the day at the Fleet to connect teachers and UC San Diego (UCSD) colleagues.

exhibit sdsp.genomeTo start the day, participants explored Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code, the first exhibit of its kind that attempts to communicate genome science to the public. As a group of working scientists and teachers, the group discussed links between the professional “doing” of science and the teaching of K-12 science. What does it mean “to do” this kind of science? the group asked. How do we communicate science?  

Tinya Fleming, a UCSD alum now working in local biotech, noted that, “I wish that the public knew that (genomics) was about asking the right kind of questions, not just answering the questions. When I go through that exhibit I am constantly asking questions — and I want students to be learning how to ask these kind of critical questions too.”

Jesse Wade-Robinson, a teacher from High Tech High, responded excitedly that “asking questions is the first scientific practice in the Next Generation Science Standards!” The “NGSS” are new K-12 standards asking U.S. teachers to engage students in the deep inquiry of science.

Back in the Fleet’s Teacher Think Tank conference room, UCSD Post Doc and adjunct Grossmont College faculty member Steve Miller then introduced the teachers to GenePalette, to discuss uses of real research tools and data in the high school classroom. GenePalette can represent a gene sequence with a picture, helping users to visualize genes on a chromosome.

“Usually what you have is just a huge string of letters to show what a gene is,” Miller noted. Garfield High School teacher Crystal Howe agreed, relating her recent efforts to teach high school students about genes with colored beads; the effort didn’t fully convey to students the vast complexity of chromosomes, she said. “If I could’ve combined this in,” she said of GenePalette, “they would’ve gotten such a more complex vision of it.” Howe will be using GenePalette with her students in the coming weeks as they continue to study heredity in class.

photo 2Participants discussed how GenePalette could show chromosomes and genes in humans vs. mice vs. sheep vs. baker’s yeast, or help explain genes’ role in proteins and regulatory functions. Conversation then turned to other ways of bringing alive the “crosscutting concepts” of patterns and scale in the Next Generation Science Standards. “So how do we get this back into our classrooms? I want to get my hands on it,” said Mt. Miguel High School teacher Todd Linke.

Miller shared examples he used in his own community college class to discuss genetics (“I show this sequence and ask, ‘what patterns do you see?'”) Wade-Robinson pointed out how her own students could see patterns when seeing chromosomes this way too (“I think kids could figure this out.”) All discussed how they could use the Fleet exhibit’s images to spark students in inquiry as well.

Teachers also described NGSS transformations at their high schools. As one teacher put it, “The old standards were just vocabulary driven.  Now the goal is to get kids to ask questions in class. We’d want to walk around an exhibit like this and ask, ‘what could you investigate?’”

Conversation turned to the need to turn college-level instruction, too, from lecture to inquiry. Stanley Lo, a new lecturer in UCSD’s Division of Biological Sciences, shared initial strategies for supporting inquiry and questioning in his own university-level science classes. As Miller demonstrated a new way of clipping sequence chunks to help college students compare patterns, one teacher said excitedly, “That’s wicked, that’s it!”

All agreed that ongoing, two-way exchange about teaching techniques would be very useful. “I’m also trying to implement this in my classroom and so I’d love to share ideas on how,” Miller explained.

Miller will continue to be a resource to these teachers while they integrate GenePalette in their classrooms. Later this year, their insights will be shared with larger groups of teachers via the professional development programs of the San Diego Science Project as GenePalette is expanded into more classrooms.

As the day ended, participants planned to follow up as both teachers and university instructors use GenePalette to engage their students in the study of genetics, DNA, and evolution, strengthening this new bridge built between the worlds of UCSD scientists and San Diego teachers of science.

“We don’t usually have access to data like this in a way that can make it palatable to the kids. This is new,” Howe noted. “We want kids looking at real data,” SDSP director Cristina Trecha agreed. Linke summed it up: “The door is cracked open for me to raise the level of rigor and technology in my classroom in teaching genetics.”

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