Genetics 101 for the masses

Two award-winning websites are meant to broaden and deepen our discussions about genes.

Louisa Stark, director of the Genetic Science Learning Center at the University of Utah, wants to broaden and deepen the discussions we have about our genes. She and her team developed two websites, Learn.Genetics and Teach.Genetics, with easy-to-use formats and colorful graphics, meant as educational tools for students and teachers, but also everyday genetics enthusiasts.

Last month, the websites were awarded the Science prize for online resources in education. I spoke with Stark this week about what makes the websites important now.

Why did you create these websites?

The websites were started in about 1995. This was one of the first scientific websites on the Internet. It's very pertinent that we have genetics education coming from the University of Utah because it's one of the top places in the world for human genetics research. It makes a lot of sense that we would translate this wonderful genetics research for students, teachers and members of the public. Genetics is a field that's moving forward very rapidly. Even teachers who got their degrees five years ago might be out of date. Textbooks can't keep up with the pace of genetics research. The Internet really provides a way to bring this genetic information that's happening so quickly to members of the public, as well as students and teachers, in a timely fashion.

Talk about the process of developing the websites.

These are very dynamic and changing websites that we plan to continue to add to and modify. For instance, we just added a new module on epigenetics, which is an area that's receiving a lot of new attention. It's not in the textbooks. There are almost no educational materials available online about this topic.

The process we used to develop the materials on the website has changed over the years. Since about 2000, we've been using a process where we really engage multiple stakeholders. We recruit teachers from across the country to come work with us for five days. We're looking for people who really have a creative spark. We identify the big ideas that we want students to remember about this topic. What are the learning concepts that will help them achieve those big ideas? The teachers develop ideas for both online materials, as well as classroom activities. Our staff takes all these ideas and works to refine them and bring them to life. Once we've developed the materials, we test them in classrooms with students and teachers.

Who is your primary audience?

Our funding has been primarily to develop materials for students and teachers for grades 5-12. However, we know our materials are used by a much broader audience because they're on the Internet. We know they're used at the college level. We know they're used in pre-professional training for nurses. Our addiction materials are used in police officer training in several countries. We also know that there are a lot of people who are just general public.

Why are these websites so relevant now?

[The websites are] relevant because of how much genetics and genomics are expanding into everyday life. Genetic information is becoming more prevalent. We're entering the era of personalized medicine. The Human Genome Project has been completed. There is so much science and information growing out of our ability to look at the human genome. In the foreseeable future, it will cost $1,000 for people to have their own genome. It's not out of the realm of imagination that many people will be able to have that information and I think it's really important that people understand both what that information can and cannot provide, as well as ethical, legal and social issues that we need to consider.

Speaking of ethical and social issues, do the websites deal with the controversy that continues to surround stem cell research?

Yes, we do. In our stem cell module, there is one page that addresses those issues. In Teach.Genetics there are materials for leading classroom discussions asking students to think about those topics. On cloning, there is the same kind of information. For gene therapy, there is the same kind of information. On a number of topics it's addressed online. We feel that these are topics that require discussion.

Photo: Louisa Stark / By Butch Adams

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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