Monday, November 19, 2007

Training Tomorrow's Peter Parkers

A New York Times article describes new efforts to teach biotech to students in high schools.

MORE than a decade ago, after George Cachianes, a former researcher at Genentech, decided to become a teacher, he started a biotechnology course at Lincoln High School in San Francisco. He saw the class as way of marrying basic biotechnology principles with modern lab practices — and insights into how business harvests biotech innovations for profit.

If you’re interested in seeing the future of biotechnology education, you might want to visit one of George Cachianes’s classrooms. “Students are motivated by understanding the relationships between research, creativity and making money,” he says. [emphasis mine]

Lincoln has five biotech classes, each with about 30 students. Four other public high schools in San Francisco offer the course, drawing on Mr. Cachianes’s syllabus. Mr. Cachianes, who still teaches at Lincoln, divides his classes into teams of five students; each team “adopts” an actual biotech company.

The students write annual reports, correspond with company officials and learn about products in the pipeline. Students also learn the latest lab techniques. They cut DNA. And recombine it. They transfer jellyfish genes into bacteria. They purify proteins. They even sequence their own cheek-cell DNA.

While I am a strong proponent of stronger science education in our high schools, I am concerned that we are teaching skills without teaching wisdom. Yes, the new advances in biotech are fascinating (I wouldn't be doing this if it weren't), but, to quote Uncle Ben, "With great power comes great responsibility." And I worry that while we are encouraging our youth to pursue the incredible power of biotechnological and other advances, we are not teaching them that such power also bestows deep responsibilities - to their employers, their customers, and to society as a whole.

Some may argue that high school students do not have the cognitive capabilities to engage in such moral/ethical discussion, but at least some of them do, as evidenced by the thriving sport of high school Speech and Forensics (aka Debate) where policy and philosophy are routinely utilized on an undergrad level to address current events and issues. Perhaps not everyone does, but a student who is able to handle complicated genetic manipulation ought to be able to absorb at least a little social awareness on the side.

Of course, it will be more difficult to find someone versed in ethical philosophy who is sufficiently motivated to work in the high schools (as there are no "Ethical Philosophy" corporations to give backing), and it is probably not wise to create an adversarial binary environment (ethicists vs. corporate interests) but some type of engagement must occur, lest we allow today's youth (tomorrow's leaders) to develop motivations based solely on personal achievement and profitability, and not built at least partly on a sense of responsibility to society.

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