Until about two decades ago, the standard method of studying a microbe was to isolate it, grow it in culture, stain it, and examine it under a microscope. Today, new genomic tools are helping expand our view of the microbial world. Instead of viewing them as “germs” to be eliminated, we are beginning to perceive our microbes as an extension of ourselves – an important organ with unique functions essential to our well-being. Scientists even came up with a new term, “microbiome,” to define our microbes’ genes as an important counterpart to our human genome. With new information about the human microbiome comes the challenge of shifting biology students’ focus from casting microbes as pathogens toward appreciating microbes as symbionts. “The Human Microbiome,” a curriculum supplement produced by the Genetic Science Learning Center, emphasizes that microbes living in and on our bodies perform neutral and beneficial functions, that human microbiota form thriving ecosystems, and that disruptions to our microbial ecosystems may have consequences. In this article, we describe the curriculum materials, provide strategies for incorporating this cutting-edge topic into biology classrooms, list connections to the Next Generation Science Standards, and report on recent research testing the curriculum supplement's effectiveness for student learning.
Epigenetics is the study of how external factors and internal cellular signals can lead to changes in the packaging and processing of DNA sequences, thereby altering the expression of genes and traits. Exploring the epigenome introduces students to environmental influences on our genes and the complexities of gene expression. A supplemental curriculum module developed by the Genetic Science Learning Center (GSLC) at the University of Utah brings epigenetics to high school and undergraduate classrooms through a range of online and paper-based activities. We describe these activities and provide strategies for incorporating both introductory and more advanced materials that explore “cell memory,” epigenetic inheritance, nutrition, and emerging connections between the epigenome and behavior. Finally, we outline recent reach on student learning gains using the GSLC's epigenetics module and provide connections to the Next Generation Science Standards.