High Schoolers investigate genetic disorders in new hands-on biology curriculum

Sara Grady
June 17, 2016

This spring, AP Biology students at Wendell Phillips Academy High School weren’t reading textbooks and taking quizzes, they were using investigative lab techniques to solve a genetic mystery.  The students spent three weeks exploring the science behind (and the implications of) modern genetic testing.

In a curriculum designed and implemented by Science in Society, a fictional commercial airline pilot is at-risk for a genetic epilepsy disorder, Dravet Syndrome. In the scenario-based curriculum, the pilot has been grounded from flight for his potential predisposition to the disorder. Students must determine if the hereditary disorder is present in the pilot’s DNA, gathering data and running tests on the genetic make-up of the pilot and his family members using authentic lab techniques including PCR, gel electrophoresis, and sequence alignment.

Student Asia B. liked that ”we experienced what actual scientist do. It was fun looking into the family's background and testing their DNA.” Sandra A. agrees, “I like how we were like actual scientists. I liked how we were able to dive in and do things hands-on which was awesome”.

Alongside hands-on lab experiments, the unit also includes presentations from genetic specialists and a discussion about ethics to explore the implications of their findings. Students read peer-reviewed journal articles and legal and employment policy documents regarding genetic discrimination which culminated in student presentations and a silent debate to explore the moral and legal decisions at hand.

Alexis H. believes this real-life relevance is part of the program’s appeal. “What I liked best about this unit was that we got to actually explore the subjects that we were studying. With the project, we got to apply what we learned to a real life situation. It was not just book work, it was more hands-on and visual.”

The three-week unit was co-taught by Philips Academy Department Chair Laura Decker and Tom Volpe, Assistant Professor in Cell and Molecular Biology at Northwestern University, with hands-on support from Lara Balay from the Hereditary Cancer Center at the University of Illinois- Chicago Hospitals and Health Sciences System and Science in Society’s Assistant Director Rebecca Daugherty, who designed the project.

Compared to a normal curricular unit, it’s a lot of professionals in and out of the classroom, but students see this as a strength. Jealissa P. says “You learn a lot of new things and ideas from different people. It's not a project where you can just do the work, with this, you have to look deep down in some research.”

Volpe, too, found the project engaging on many levels. “Throughout my career, nothing has been more rewarding than getting kids excited about science. The coolest thing about teaching science is that the students have fun and, at the same time, develop critical thinking skills that will be useful long after they graduate. Hopefully, the work [we] do will have a positive impact on their lives.” 

Daugherty designed the curriculum to highlight real world applications of genetic knowledge. With support from the Silverstein Foundation, the project is now in its second year. It was developed to teach students in Chicago’s Brownsville neighborhood about DNA-based labs and demonstrate the role of genetic testing is society.

For the AP Biology students at Philips Academy, the school year ended with a field trip to Northwestern’s Evanston campus, where students met faculty researchers and toured labs, and of course, stocked up on dining hall ice cream sundaes to celebrate.  




A digital science magazine published by Science in Society and written by Northwestern faculty, students and staff.

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