A Partnership for Problem-Based Learning: Challenging Students to Consider Open-Ended Problems Involving Gene Therapy

By Lockhart, Amanda; Le Doux, Joseph | The Science Teacher, December 2005 | Go to article overview

A Partnership for Problem-Based Learning: Challenging Students to Consider Open-Ended Problems Involving Gene Therapy


Lockhart, Amanda, Le Doux, Joseph, The Science Teacher


So many demands are placed on high school teachers today. We are expected to engage students in authentic hands-on, inquiry-based learning that hooks them on the excitement of cutting-edge science fields, develops their higher-order thinking skills, exposes them to modern lab techniques, arms them with an understanding of the science that affects their lives and should inform their decisions as adults, and covers state and national curriculum standards. Simple? Not really. But the right kind of professional development can help teachers meet these challenges.

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For two summers, I took part in the Research Experience for Teachers (RET). Through this RET professional development partnership, I attained greater in-depth knowledge of molecular biology and virology, became more familiar with cutting-edge lab techniques that teach students important skills for college, and brought my summer research experience back to the classroom through a problem-based learning (PBL) gene therapy module.

Background on RET partnership

When most teachers hear the phrase "professional development," skepticism clouds their faces. But research-based professional development can provide interesting experiences and valuable content knowledge. Though many teachers do participate in research, the National Science Education Standards suggest that more should. Professional Development Standard A states that a science teacher's learning experiences must "involve teachers in actively investigating phenomena that can be studied scientifically, interpreting results, and making sense of findings consistent with currently accepted scientific understanding" (NRC 1996, p. 59).

The RET program, funded by the National Science Foundation, helps "facilitate professional development of K-12 teachers and community college faculty through strengthened partnerships between institutions of higher education and local school districts; and encourages researchers to build mutually rewarding partnerships with teachers" (NSF). The long-term goals of our partnership established through RET are to stimulate the development and use of educational techniques and materials that will inspire high school students to consider careers in science and engineering and to increase communication between high school and college educators.

For ten months of the year I am a high school biology teacher. For the other two months I am a research scientist, at least I have been for the past two summers when I have worked in the Le Doux Lab at Georgia Tech as part of the RET program. Research in the Le Doux Lab revolves around gene therapy, focusing on retrovirus and lentivirus-mediated gene delivery to cells and the effect of genetic modification on the fate of embryonic and adult stem cells. My participation in the RET program has enabled me to help establish a three-member partnership that includes Joseph Le Doux, an assosciate professor of biomedical engineering, Cindy Jung, a biomedical engineering graduate student, and me.

The first objective of our partnership was to develop curriculum materials to motivate secondary school students to learn the basic concepts of gene therapy, understand what this technology can and cannot do, and consider what its effect could ultimately be on their health.

Gene therapy is a rapidly emerging technology with the potential to have a profound impact on medicine and society. It provides an excellent example of how today's scientists and engineers must integrate principles from several disciplines (physics, chemistry, biology, and engineering) to solve problems. In addition, the excitement generated by gene therapy may inspire some otherwise disinterested students to consider a career in science or engineering.

My first order of business was to get up to speed on gene therapy and molecular biology techniques. I learned cell culturing techniques and the planning, calculations, and techniques involved in several experimental assays. …

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