The Biotechnology Discoveries and Applications guidebook aims to provide teachers with an overview of the recent advances in genetics and biotechnology, allowing them to share these findings with their students. The annual guidebook introduces a wealth of modern genomic discoveries and provides teachers with tools to integrate exciting content into the classroom. Released annually by the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology in Huntsville, Alabama, the guidebook presents new findings in jargon-free, student-friendly language. The guidebook is introduced along with strategies for classroom use.
Sequencing of entire genomes or exomes (that 2% of the genome that is protein coding) is rapidly becoming an integral component of many research projects. As recently as 2 years ago, fewer than 50 human genomes had been sequenced. As 2012 drew to a close, the National Institutes of Health estimated funding exome or genome sequencing of ~70,000 research subjects (Phimister et al., 2012). Sophisticated computer algorithms comb through the 3 billion bases of sequence information, helping identify DNA variants with potential clinical significance. Similar analyses are exploring the genomes of other animals, as well as plants, bacteria, and fungi. Agricultural, pharmaceutical, and diagnostic companies are using these findings to shape crop selections, develop new drugs, and offer genetic tests to help determine future disease risk. Clearly the era of genomics is upon us.
Against this dizzying backdrop, how do teachers stay current regarding both the scientific and the commercial impact of genomics? Part of the solution is found in the annual Biotechnology Discoveries and Applications guidebook produced by the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology (Figure 1). This free publication provides educators with an overview of the recent advances in genetics and biotechnology, in an easy-to-understand form that can be shared with their students.
What Is the Guidebook?
The annual guidebook introduces a wealth of modern genomic discoveries that are generally too new to have appeared in student textbooks. HudsonAlpha, a not-for-profit research organization located in Huntsville, Alabama, has a threefold mission that includes genomic research, the potential application of that research, and educational outreach. The education team at HudsonAlpha combs through hundreds of scientific research papers each year to identify high-impact and interesting discoveries. These stories form the backbone of the guidebook, using jargon-free language to make the information accessible for a wide-ranging audience of learners.
Recent research announcements are grouped in the “New Findings” section to provide a quick update on the genetics/genomics/biotechnology fields (Figure 2). Some are described in only a few sentences, whereas others get a more thorough explanation. These magazine-style articles represent discoveries, treatments, or applications that have been announced during the past year. The 2012 guidebook highlights 41 recent discoveries, including
Processes for controlling gene activity across the human genome (ENCODE Project Consortium, 2012)
A possible link between coal formation and white rot fungi (Floudas et al., 2012)
Collisions between replication and transcription machinery (Helmrich et al., 2011)
The genetic pathway for hair-color patterns in cats (Kaelin et al., 2012)
Insight into the trillions of microbes that live in and on the human body (Human Microbiome Project Consortium, 2012)
Carrot cell cultures that produce medication to treat disease (Maxmen, 2012)
All the new findings are linked to 23 foundational topics, explained in the “Foundational Concepts and Their Applications” portion of the guidebook (Figure 3). This section provides a more in-depth discussion of the underlying science, key technologies involved in genomic research, or the applications of current research efforts. These one-page articles use student-friendly language to bridge the gap between textbooks and new scientific publications. The foundational topics include
RNA and protein analyses
Copy number variation
Identifying the genetic influence on disease
Personal genome analysis
Each foundational article is revisited yearly and updated. Each concept discussed in the guidebook is correlated to applicable science, health, and career technical education (CTE) courses, along with a brief discussion of how the content applies to the objective. Contained in blue-highlighted boxes, these discussions help teachers connect presented content and course-of-study objectives. Although the topics are correlated to Alabama curriculum standards and objectives, the text of each objective is provided to facilitate easy correlation between foundation topics and other state or national standards.
The guidebook’s two main sections are separated by an Alabama course-of-study links table (Figure 4), which provides a more complete listing of objectives relevant to genetics, genomics, and biotechnology. This listing is paired with pertinent topics from the guidebook for science and CTE courses. This provides teachers with a single table that ties classroom objectives to these current research discoveries and technological advancements.
The Guidebook in the Classroom
The guidebook can be used by educators and students in a variety of ways. It is a useful tool for teachers looking to update their personal content knowledge, providing current resources in the face of rapidly changing research. For many classroom educators, the guidebook serves as a one-stop source for updates in genetics, genomics, and biotechnology content.
For teachers who wish to use the guidebook with their students, the jargon-free language and relatively short length make the foundation articles classroom-friendly reading passages. The guidebook provides a readily available set of content-specific reading passages that can be used with a wide variety of literacy strategies. These passages supplement textbook readings to introduce current research and build on textbook content. The high-interest nature of the passages makes them viable engagement readings to hook students into a content sweep or serve as a pre-lab reading. The shorter science briefs can be used as stems in assessment or to identify student misconceptions. Additionally, the magazine-style format engages readers much like science articles in popular media within the area of genetics, genomics, and biotechnology. For classrooms wishing to explore new findings more deeply, scientific references are provided for each discovery. In most cases, a simple Web search using the article’s title will lead to the abstract, which can be freely viewed without a subscription to the publishing journal. Although these abstracts are often jargon dense, helping students decipher the primary literature can be a powerful way to introduce them to the process of scientific advancement.
Suggested Classroom Activities
Where Does This Fit? – Given a specific article or section from the guidebook, ask students to evaluate whether the concept warrants inclusion in a textbook. Have students identify where in their textbook the concept should most logically be placed. What prior knowledge or vocabulary is needed to comprehend the article? Is this concept a foundation needed for other concepts? To which unit of study is the article most related, and upon what set of concepts does the article build? To extend this activity, have students refer to both the article and primary literature to rewrite the article as it would appear in future editions of the textbook. The purpose is not to have students critique their textbook or research, but to place the new discovery within the context of current science understandings and to reinforce the accumulative nature of those understandings.
Biotech News Stories – Have students create “news” stories from guidebook articles. These could be for print or video media. To create these stories, students would have to integrate guidebook topics with current topics that are being addressed in the classroom and utilize appropriate vocabulary and science content.
Key Word Comparisions – Have students compare a guidebook article with a related passage from a textbook to identify the common words. Create a list of terms or phrases found in the two readings and have students separate terms into “science vocabulary” and “common language.” Ask whether any of the representative language is common to both readings and discuss its usage. Do these terms constitute a list of key words? Should any terms be added to the list?
Accessing the Guidebook
Each year, the newest version of the guidebook is distributed freely through a variety of mechanisms. Print versions of the guidebook are distributed each fall to high schools across Alabama. The most recent version is regularly presented at national teacher meetings, and print copies are distributed at these sessions. Teachers outside of Alabama can request a free print copy of the guidebook by sending a self-addressed, postage-prepaid 9½ × 12½ inch envelope to Education Outreach, HudsonAlpha, 601 Genome Way, Huntsville, AL 35806. Alternatively, the guidebook is available as a downloadable PDF from the HudsonAlpha website (http://hudsonalpha.org/education/resources/guidebook). Archives from previous years’ editions can also be found at this location. Lastly, plans are underway to distribute the guidebook as an enhanced digital book for eReader, with video and resource links for many of the stories.
It can be daunting for educators to keep pace with science research. By continually reviewing the literature and compiling the annual guidebook, the educational outreach team at HudsonAlpha hopes to make this an easier process, at least for topics related to genetics, genomics, and biotechnology. In turn, the excitement and process of scientific discovery become more accessible for students, with the end goal of increasing scientific literacy. More information about this and other education-related projects can be found on the HudsonAlpha website (http://www.hudsonalpha.org), and the authors welcome comments and feedback on the guidebook and its use in the classroom.