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GEP is actively looking for partner institutions; we have 17 and would like 100. We are looking for faculty members who want to bring genomics into their teaching of genetics, and for faculty members who have good DNA sequence annotation projects for the students to carry out.
In my opinion, and recent experience, students everywhere want to participate in the process of science. Research is how new knowledge is generated in our field, and where students can become engaged with science in the making. As research-based learning enters the curricula, we see a critical benefit: Students understand how scientists work on real problems. Those who go on to non-science careers will be more discerning consumers of technology. Plus, we'll be inspiring more students to enter science and technology careers, and giving them the foundation to do so.
Of course, I'm not the only one who has noticed the educational opportunities created by online access to databases and genomics tools. Graham Hatfull, an HHMI professor, has developed a program that enables students to isolate and sequence unique phages, and he and I are working with HHMI to develop a "national experiment," called the Science Education Alliance, to engage students in this sort of research (see Chronicle, this issue).
If we're to create a genomics-knowledgeable next generation, such innovations in education are vital. Our children need the tools to make informed choices about their world, and to help them do so we have to bring genomics into schools and colleges. Elementary students can gain a basic understanding of life cycles, and by the time kids reach middle school, they're ready to start talking about DNA as an information molecule.
In another decade, genomics will be so accessible and affordable that middle school and high school students everywhere will be plucking organisms from their back yards and sequencing them—provided they have the education and tools to do so. It was, after all, Henry Ford who said, "Before all else, preparation is the secret of success."
Sarah Elgin is a biologist at Washington University in St. Louis.
Interview by Richard Currey