Bioinformatics Education Should Start in High School
The Puget Sound region is home to more than 175 biotechnology institutions. These facilities have many of the brightest minds focused on improving health here and around the world. As a high school science teacher, one of my aims is to excite students about rapidly growing and rewarding career pathways. Those who excel in the sciences typically hope to pursue careers in medicine or veterinary science.
But what about discovering cures rather than simply administering them?
In this digital age, one of the areas that should be most exciting to students is the intersection between technology and biology. Public databases store an abundance of biological data and a variety of programs enable this data to be searched, compared, and visualized. Termed bioinformatics, researchers use these capabilities to understand and treat genetic conditions, discern evolutionary relationships, and learn about how cancer cells differ from normal cells. What is especially exciting is that this technology is available to all, including high school students.
So why is bioinformatics rarely included in biology courses? Because few teachers know where to begin. I graduated from college long before the Human Genome Project was complete and my exposure to biological databases was extremely limited. Because of the rapid pace at which science advances, science teachers are often confronted with the challenge of staying current.
The answer to this obstacle is high-quality professional development. This summer I participated in a bioinformatics course developed by one of the area’s best providers of teacher professional development—the Northwest Association for Biomedical Research (NWABR). Funded as part of the Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers program by the National Science Foundation, the Bio-ITEST Bioinformatics Workshop provided educators from around the Puget Sound and as far away as Detroit with background in the tools of bioinformatics, exposure to high-quality curriculum developed for high school students, and the opportunity to learn from researchers who are using bioinformatics everyday.
NWABR’s mission is to promote an understanding of biomedical research through education and dialogue. Their high-quality education materials consistently meet this mission due to the staff’s genuine understanding of how to develop engaging and relevant lessons, and their inclusion of educators in all parts of the design process. Once again they have produced a curriculum that will motivate high school students to understand the complexities of biological research and technology.
The curriculum is compelling to students at a number of different levels. In contrast to much of what occurs in high school biology, students get to manipulate real genetic sequences and see 3D images of real proteins. In fact, students have the chance to sequence DNA from a selected organism and submit it to online databases as part of an authentic research project. Opportunities like this are rare for high school science students. Further, students are provided with structures for constructive discussion of the issues that arise as genetic research advances—should one get tested for disease markers, should research into rare diseases be funded? These questions ignite interest in a diverse cross-section of students, both those that are scientifically-minded and those who are less inclined.
I find the most exciting aspect, however, is the exposure students get to a wide variety of careers that rely on bioinformatics. The traditional professions are included—medical doctor, scientific researcher, but also many students wouldn’t think of. Students learn about genetic counselors, 3D animators, and biological anthropologists among many others. Surely with such varied options, many students will find something that appeals to them. By reading interviews, looking at pictures, and doing online research, students find that those in scientific fields can be young, interesting, and from diverse backgrounds. Just seeing a scientist that looks like them can be enough to allow some students to envision themselves in similar careers.
A constant worry to me is whether I am doing enough to prepare my students for the careers that await them when they are ready to enter the workforce. I am convinced that we are not doing all that is needed to ensure that our students are the ones at the forefront of science and technology. The Bio-ITEST bioinformatics program is a powerful tool to help prepare students to engage in 21st century science.