By Rob DeSalle, Yael Wyner

Being responsible about genomics, genetics, climate change, stem cell research, conservation biology - these are all difficult topics for even the specialist to grasp, not only scientifically but ethically. So when they are taught to elementary and secondary school students, the challenge is immense. How do we convey the excitement of research in these areas in a responsible and scientific manner? How do we also get through to the students that our research and use of advances in these areas have impacts on everything from our everyday lives to our future on this planet?

While the overall subject of this issue of GeneWatch is genetics education, we thought it would be instructive to detail an approach that we developed for conservation biology and conservation genetics that has shown great promise in educating elementary and secondary level students. The approach is called Ecology Disrupted and is based on the famed ecologist and conservation biologist Aldo Leopold's ideas about ecological and evolutionary processes.

Ecology Disrupted hopes to take local environmental issues to the formal classroom setting by connecting students to the issues in an obvious and personal way. In so doing the approach engenders excitement and, more importantly, involvement of the student in the science and interpretation of the science. Accomplishing these objectives in the classroom gives the student a richer understanding of the topics in conservation biology and conservation genetics.

The first layer of educating a student on a complex issue is to engage the student. If this layer is not accomplished first, the task of educating the subsequent layers is made more difficult. As museum scientists, we use the same approach with exhibitions. If an exhibit somehow touches a visitor in a personal and meaningful way, then the scientific content becomes much easier to teach in an informal setting. We suggest that formal education should be no different. Taking the additional step of linking day to day life to an ecological or genetic process, aids the student in discovering the hidden complexity of ecological processes around them and provides an excellent way of teaching the principles of the phenomenon such as ecology or conservation genetics.

Another important layer of learning contributed by the Ecology Disrupted model is the use of "real" scientific data to make ecological connections. This has two functions. First, it directly connects the student to the researcher and gives the student an idea of who scientists are and what they do. This objective is important in that it brings the science out of the clouds and convinces the student that the inferences made in science are real and justifiable. In conservation biology and genetics, scientists have collected data for decades that bear on specific subjects and these data can be easily presented to the student with a specific task for the student to manipulate the data, such as linear regression, or mapping, or even simply plotting data. Additionally, if the data presented to the student are up to date, the student gets the sense that his or her own knowledge is up to date and cutting edge. This aspect of the Ecology Disrupted model goes a long way toward keeping students engaged and attentive to the lessons.

An interesting example from ecology concerns Lyme Disease. In the Northeastern United States, late elementary and secondary students are well versed in the perils of Lyme disease. However, most students don't understand the connection of the disease to fragmented habitats and disrupted food webs. Placing Lyme disease in its ecological context helps students gain a deeper understanding of its causes and the related ecological principles. This approach allows for more detail to be taught to the student about habitats and food webs, some very basic subjects in modern ecology.

One big challenge of the Ecology Disrupted model is that the case studies need to be tailored to the geographic area where it is being taught.  While Lyme disease is of interest to kids in the Northeast United States, it might not be terribly interesting to kids in Florida. So the development of regional examples is important. However, because the ecology of the United States has been studied extensively with many data sets generated on hundreds of topics, the tailoring of region-specific examples is not a problem. Two of our earliest examples show how regional specificity of topics can be easily  achieved. We developed a classroom exercise on using genetics to understand the role of highways in Southern California and Nevada in disrupting bighorn sheep metapopulations. The second example concerns the impacts of salting of icy roads in the Mid-Atlantic states. Both of these studies are based on real data published in respected ecology and conservation journals.

We hope that this excursion in conservation biology and ecology teaching has been informative for the more genetics-oriented audience of GeneWatch.  From the Ecology Disrupted model and its initial application in NYC classrooms, we can suggest that teaching complex scientific topics such as ecology or genomics is augmented when the connection to everyday life is made. The Ecology Disrupted approach helps students learn that no matter where they live, they are part of a system in which ecological processes and disruptions to these processes affect their daily lives. We also posit that involving the student with real data from up-to-date publications is an important aspect of science education at the secondary and upper primary levels.


Yael Wyner, PhD, is Assistant Professor in the Department of Secondary Education/Biology at The City College of New York.

Rob DeSalle, PhD, is a Curator and Professor at the American Museum of Natural History and The Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics.

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The Council for Responsible Genetics’ Genetic Privacy Manual: Understanding the Threats- Understanding Your Rights will be a comprehensive, electronic source of information for the consumer on these issues.
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