Team:UCSF/Human Practices



Balancing Education and Regulation: Teaching Biotechnology and Synthetic Biology in High School

by Ethan Chan and Edna Miao


Biotechnology is growing exponentially in popularity due to the great potential of new scientific innovations. Examples include alternative biofuels and lifesaving medical therapies. Biotechnology companies are emerging all over California, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area. As a result, subjects like molecular biology have found their way into high school curricula. At Abraham Lincoln High School in San Francisco, students learn about biotech and its real-world applications in a unique, two-year advanced biotechnology class. A growing number of high schools are creating biotechnology courses. There is particularly strong interest among high schoolers for the cutting edge science of Synthetic Biology.

The explosion in biotechnology courses in high schools raises important questions about the regulation of biotechnology outside of universities and industry. While it is clearly important to train the future biotechnology workforce, there are concerns among governmental agencies and other groups that unregulated “Do-It-Yourself (DIY) biologists pose a risk to safety and security, especially given the increasing capabilities of Synthetic Biology. One such concern is whether DIY Bio and high school biotechnology courses could potentially release toxic chemical or biological waste into the environment. The safer alternative would be to work in a lab where qualifications must be met and guidelines must be followed. But back in the classroom, what kind of training should be required of teachers? What preparations must be made to ensure safety of the students? There is no definite answer for these questions because biotechnology is a new subject in schools and has yet to be regulated. That doesn’t mean there is no attention being paid to safety. Teachers and members of organizations such as the Bay Area Botechnology Education Consortium (BABEC) often meet to address these questions and to create a safe and ethical high school curriculum for the most beneficial learning experience.

Section 1 – Biotech classes in High School

Biotechnology is a booming industry. This relatively new field of science has already been responsible for the birth of many new medicines used today. In fact, many believe that biotechnology has the potential to solve many of our world’s major societal challenges. Biotechnology has already started to appear in high schools across the world. At San Francisco’s Abraham Lincoln High School, the reputation of biotech classes always brings about long waiting lists. Students feel that pursuing biotechnology will result in many different job opportunities. More importantly, having biotech in high schools allows students to gain the basic knowledge required to solve everyday problems. Exposure to molecular biology in high schools motivates students to become future leaders in the biotechnology industry.

Abraham Lincoln High School offers five first-year biotechnology classes and one second-year biotechnology class annually. Each class is able to hold thirty students. In the first-year’s biotech class, students are taught the fundamentals of using scientific instruments such as pipettes. This hands-on course teaches the same techniques that are used in today’s industry and academic labs. After a few weeks of detailed lectures, students are directed to their lab bench, where they learn how to generate plasmids/recombinant DNA and sequence DNA, along with several other techniques. These experiments are not as simple as following protocols, but actually encourage the students to think creatively. By the end of the first year, students will have the ability to transform bacteria, work with various enzymes, and run gel electrophoresis.

The second year biotech class expands on the knowledge taught in the first-year. Because of limited resources, only thirty students are chosen from the first-year pool to continue on with the studies. This second course is much more lab intensive. Whereas the majority of first year biotechnology was spent on theory and basic lab skills, second year biotechnology teaches students the applications, implications, and limitations of current biotechnology. Intense lectures accompanied by demos are followed by the labs themselves. The ability to perform each experiment is thoroughly tested by the teacher after every lesson. At the end of the year, students are able to perform techniques such as the Bradford assay, western blotting, sequencing DNA, running ELISAs and purifying proteins. Looking back, the skills that we acquired through second-year biotech played a tremendous role at our time with the iGEM team.

Skills like protein extraction and ELISA are not ones that can be taught by a teacher who isn’t properly trained. San Francisco has six high schools that offer biotechnology as a class, and Abraham Lincoln High School is fortunate to be one of them. San Mateo High School, located in the Bay Area, is the first to have a three-year program. They even have their own greenhouse! Until recently, biotech courses were virtually non-existent in high schools. With the increasing popularity of biotechnology in high school, there is an increasing need for (and a dearth of) qualified teachers. The interest in more schools having courses like biotech also brings about concerns. Although the benefits are obvious, the effect of having inexperienced teachers educating a class of students could prove to be problematic.

Section 2 – Biotech classes in HS Versus DIY BIO

A teacher interested in teaching biotechnology must have sufficient knowledge of the field of molecular biology. Most of the powerful tools explained in biotech courses expand from the foundations of molecular biology. This advanced subject takes years to master at the graduate level. Currently, the qualifications for new teachers wanting to teach a biotech course have not been established. Instead, the standards for teaching an advanced class such as biotech are the same as any other life science class. This brings up the concern that new teachers are not only undereducated in the content they are teaching, but will also be untrained in the importance of bioethics and safety issues. New companies such as DIY Bio add yet another complication into the mix. Without proper training, there is the potential to create a hazard. In today’s world, the dangers of labs in the garages of people’s homes are enough to alarm the FBI and CIA. Online forums are already available for those who want to do molecular biology at home. Some would doubt the possibility of doing anything dangerous because of the intensive amounts of equipment required. Surprisingly, some of these forums also include instructions on how to get or make your own equipment. With all of these resources easily available to the average person, the government is fully aware of the possibility of devious biohackers in everyday homes. A concern with DIY bio is that “organisms in the hands of amateurs could escape and cause outbreaks of incurable diseases or unpredictable environmental damage” (Jim Thomas of ETC group). Could the dangers of biosecurity also apply to the work being done in high schools? Questions like these are slowly emerging now that the field of biotechnology is increasingly accessible. High schools do have safety standards set by regulators. However, these standards are still perfunctory, and do not take into account the experience and qualifications of teachers. New standards and guidelines need to be developed that will address safety issues while still supporting innovation in the classroom.

How is the work being done at professional research labs any different from the work being done in high schools or in homes? In science labs at hospitals, universities, and medical schools, the standards are developed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). These labs usually require sophisticated monitoring equipment. Strict guidelines are put in place to ensure the safety of employees. The NIH has set guidelines from no eating in the lab to requiring certified storage cabinets and biohazard disposal containers. The NIH insists that lab conditions must be kept in a consistent manner. Any violation of these guidelines could result in hefty fines and/or the closure of a lab. Even as temporary employees of UCSF, each iGEM member had to go through a safety certification procedure before we were allowed to do any lab work. The online program consisted of reading about the disposal of dangerous chemicals, emergency procedures, and ‘the rules’ of working in a lab. Our understanding of each rule was assessed with a quiz. Each iGEM team member had to successfully pass the quizzes or any lab work was prohibited. At the classroom level, it is important for educators to have some freedom in creating innovative, new laboratories for students. George Cachianes, the biotechnology teacher at Abraham Lincoln High School, benefits from the current lack of restrictive standards. Having written his own curriculum, Cachianes ensures that his lessons and labs are safe in the high school environment. One of the his top priorities while creating his curriculum has been the safety of his students. As a former employee of the biotech company Genentech, and member of BABEC, Cachianes thinks that not everyone is qualified to pursue a teaching career in science, “Modern applications require new levels of training, not typically common in the requirements to teach high school biotechnology.”

Section 3 – The Future of Teachings of Biotech

This brings about the important question of how to regulate teaching biotech in schools. What should the school requirements be? The safety of the facilities, faculty, and students must be paramount. The safety of the general public outside the classroom must be observed as well. A teacher interested in teaching biotechnology must take into consideration safety and the teaching of bioethics. They need some extra training, and the qualifications for becoming a biotech teacher have not yet been defined. A life science bachelor’s degree is required. With the overwhelming demand for new high school science teachers, some fear that the standards of a bachelor’s degree in science will be lowered in order to make teaching a more accessible career. One option would be taking a very rigorous test that proves the prospective teacher is adequately prepared. Bioethics should certainly be required if teachers plan to teach biotechnology. Mr. Cachianes has often had students debate issues related to biotechnology. At the end of each year, he shows the film “Gattaca,” a powerful movie addressing many ethical issues that can potentially arise from the abuse of biotechnology.

In addition to learning the applications of biotechnology, students also need to understand the implications of this new technology. For example, there has been much debate in society about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). GMOs come with a long list of benefits and potential concerns, as do many other applications of biotechnology. Students therefore should be educated, and be able to exercise good judgment regarding ethical considerations. In order for that to happen, qualified teachers are needed. BABEC, an organization that includes local biotechnology teachers, meets monthly to address such concerns. People from industry are represented as well. Together, they develop high school biotechnology curricula. These meetings help pool resources by sharing materials and protocols. Furthermore, teachers who come to BABEC workshops learn about the ethical considerations and implications of each application they learn.

There is a concern that new regulations may stymie the ability of high school students to do research and experiments in classes. However, Mr. Cachianes feels that there will be exceptions for educators that allow them to continue to teach biotechnology. It will, however, be difficult to enforce new regulations on the public. The best way would be to restrict access to purchasing restriction endonucleases and other enzymes that must be purchased from specialty companies. Mr. Cachianes also feels that high schools will remain mostly unaffected, because the experiments performed are made to be safe. It will be possible to have the freedom of teaching a class without having to be burdened by challenging regulations in the future, because if the rules are reasonable then there shouldn’t be a problem. Today, there are already some rules in place. For example, students cannot do any experiments that involve the use of blood. These rules are reasonable, since blood is biohazardous. However, if rules get overly restrictive, Mr. Cachianes has said that they could preclude him from teaching high school students effectively. Hopefully, it will never come to that. Governmental agencies involved in regulating DIY Biology should make sure that the actions they take do not come at the expense of a thriving biotechnology educational system.

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