photograph by Chad Hurst

The Internet Age

Increasing science literacy one webpage at a time.

To engage children and teenagers in science, it helps to entertain. Louisa Stark, director of the Genetic Science Learning Center at University of Utah, uses tools that students have already mastered, such as the internet. The HHMI-funded learn.genetics and teach.genetics websites, which Stark oversees, use two favorites—animation and interactive graphics—to explain and explore genetics, inheritance, and genomics.

Why is genomic literacy so important for today’s students and teachers?

The 21st century has been called the age of the genome, and genomics is affecting so many areas of people's lives. Genomic medicine is obviously very personal, but there are also the issues of genetically modified foods, using genetics for environmental conservation, and in forensics—certainly a lot of kids are watching CSI on TV.

To make decisions, people need to be able to understand and decipher what's in the media. I was in a store and saw a display promoting "DNA toothpaste." What does DNA have to do with toothpaste? We are being bombarded with media messages that play on science in ways that are not scientifically based.

How do Web-based tools help teach science?

Students today are playing video games and using other interactive technologies. In national surveys, teachers are urging us to bring the technology that kids are using into the classroom, and the kids agree.

If we want to increase scientific literacy and the number of students who are interested in science and science-related careers, then it has to be presented in an engaging way that gets them to think critically. Plus, the Internet is many people's go-to source for information, so it is important to have scientifically accurate information available.

Did any surprises surface as you field-tested your modules?

We have 5th-grade material in Spanish and English that covers the very basics of genetic inheritance. Our community advisory committee strongly suggested family take-home activities in both languages. We field-tested them in schools with large Spanish-speaking populations. Teachers reported that, because of these materials, parents and students were having conversations about science and school and genetics that they'd never had before. And parents and teachers were having conversations about science and school for the first time. I hadn't fully realized the power of having materials in the family's language.

Do your modules explore some of the ethical issues involved in genomics?

A number of our modules on the Teach.Genetics site—for example, the modules on stem cells, cloning, and addiction—include discussion components on ethics. Ethics is important to address and can be used as a way to hook students' interest. At this time in their lives, students are trying to figure out what they think in relation to their peers, their parents, and the media. I think they are more concerned about these issues than we give them credit for.

A number of years ago, I gave a talk on genomics at an Asia-Pacific conference on education in Singapore. I talked about issues of privacy and confidentiality associated with genetic technologies. During the question and answer period, a woman stood up and said, "I don't really understand what you're talking about. Doesn't your genetic information belong to the community?" That was an eye opener for me, to understand that in different cultures there are different views about genetic information. In the United States, we tend to think this is a private matter. When I am working with teachers, I share that experience because many of them have students from a wide variety of backgrounds. It's important for teachers to recognize there is more than one way to think about these issues.

How are you evaluating the sites? Who is using them?

Small-scale randomized, controlled studies of our modules show they are effective teaching tools. In one study, students were assigned to receive our module or materials from a widely used textbook on the same topic. Before-and-after testing showed that there was no difference in knowledge gained, but the textbook work required a classroom set of microscopes and slides and the website module did not. And the module required about 30 minutes less teacher preparation time. In another trial, students assigned to our module gained significantly more knowledge than students who were assigned to another popular online site.

From our website usage statistics, we know that Learn.Genetics receives more than 50,000 visits per day and more than 250,000 page views per day. An online survey in January 2010 showed us that 69 percent of our users are students, 16 percent are teachers, and 15 percent are other adults.

Our funding is primarily to develop materials for grades 5–12, but we know from surveys and website feedback that our materials are reaching further. Our addiction materials are used in police officer training and by addiction counselors. Scientists who may be new to microarrays use our microarray lab as an introduction. Our materials are being used to train nurses and by undergrad level instructors. A lot of members of the public are coming to our sites just because they are interested in genetics.

Louisa Stark is a research associate professor in the department of human genetics at the University of Utah School of Medicine.