Genetics Curriculum Builds Understanding of Science and Health
CityLab receives a new grant to update the Mystery of the Crooked Cell to introduce high school students to molecular biology
Boston University’s CityLab—a collaboration between the Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine and Wheelock College of Education & Human Development—received a five-year, $1.3 million Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop, test, and evaluate a new version of Mystery of the Crooked Cell (MCC), a laboratory-based molecular biology curriculum supplement for middle and high school students. Heading the project are BU Wheelock’s Donald DeRosa, clinical associate professor emeritus, and Carla Romney, CityLab director of research, as well as Carl Franzblau, professor of biochemistry & cell biology at the Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine.
Over 100,000 teachers and their students in the United States and around the world have used MCC since its creation in the early 1990s. It introduces high school students to molecular biology using sickle cell disease as a framework. According to the Centers for Disease Control, sickle cell disease is a set of inherited conditions that affect hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout the body. In sickle cell disease, the hemoglobin gene is mutated, which can lead to infections, strokes, anemia, and other ailments.
Sickle cell disease is “a good disease to study. It’s straightforward,” says DeRosa. “It’s a good introduction to fundamental molecular biology and genetics.”
This new version of the curriculum, which DeRosa, Franzblau, and Romney call MCC 2.0, will expand the original focus on the mutation in the gene that codes for hemoglobin by incorporating genome editing, bioethics, diversity, social justice, and inclusion. It will also focus on building students’ reasoning skills and prepare them to understand science and health throughout their lives.
Students will roll up their sleeves in the lab for hands-on learning using an array of techniques, including CRISPR gene editing, augmented and virtual reality simulations, and computerized simulations of lab assays. Franzblau noted the importance of this kind of experiential learning, saying, “Having an answer come back by doing hands-on science is exciting for everyone.”
The updated curriculum will also explore ethics and historical bias in science and medicine. By infusing lessons about social justice, diversity, and bias, DeRosa, Romney, and Franzblau hope to encourage students from backgrounds that are underrepresented in STEM to consider careers in these fields. They stress the importance of this emphasis, saying that it supports the rigor and scientific accuracy of the curriculum.
“It’s not really culturally relevant pedagogy unless the students, particularly the students who have been marginalized educationally, are learning,” says DeRosa. “It has to be rigorous. It has to have substance to it.”
According to CityLab’s news release, the principal investigators hope the updated MCC experience will “lead students to develop important science understanding, [socioscientific reasoning] skills, and attitudes and behaviors that promote diversity in STEM.” Romney says that the goal of MCC 2.0 is “to prepare [students] for the next scientific challenges that come their way in life” and to teach them to “think as scientists think.” Franzblau adds, “We need to create an atmosphere that stimulates youngsters to be interested in science.”