Looking for a way to provide high-school kids with a solid scientific explanation of biotechnology? Or, for that matter, are you hoping to brush up on your own knowledge of biotechnology in order to help advance an informed dialogue about such things as genetically modified organisms (GMOs)?

You’re in luck-—there’s now an app for that. Perhaps it is more accurately described as an online resource, a web-based teaching tool that has been optimized for delivery across platforms ranging from smart phones to tablet computers to desktop machines. “We felt it was important to make this available on mobile devices,” says University of Nebraska-Lincoln agronomy professor Don Lee, who specializes in teaching the fundamentals of genetics.

Lee points to a study that found more of the planet’s 6 billion people have access to a mobile phone (4.6 billion) than own a toothbrush (4.2 billion). “Many of those are smart phones, and young people are accustomed to using their mobile devices to tap into knowledge about their world,” he says.

Education outreach. “Journey of a Gene,” the online resource developed from a partnership between Iowa State University and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, teaches by telling a story. That story is how genetic engineering might help solve the sudden death syndrome (SDS) in soybeans.

Iowa State wanted to capitalize on Lee’s experience in teaching biotechnology, leading to a plan for the Plant and Soil Science eLibrary at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to develop and evaluate the app.

Grace Troupe, one of Lee’s graduate students, developed the app as part of her master’s project. The site she developed is visually rich and relies heavily on narrated video to provide a classroom-ready learning experience. Students navigate through four steps that include designing a gene; delivering a transgene by using Agrobacterium, a natural genetic engineer; breeding the transgene into top varieties; and DNA testing to assure that the transgene made it into the final products. Students take quizzes during each section to demonstrate their knowledge of the subject.

Evaluate effectiveness. A key part of the development process was a formal study of the effectiveness of Journey of a Gene. Are today’s teachers highly scientifically literate in biotechnology? Are they comfortable teaching about complex subjects such as genetic engineering?

“The answers to those questions are clearly ‘no’ and ‘no,’” Lee says. “However, we did find that our app could help teachers overcome barriers to teaching biotechnology.”

Troupe found by surveying 900 students that the app did allow students to learn more about biotechnology while becoming more accepting of genetic engineering technology.

That’s not to say that the app is a “sales job” for GMOs. The site is, by its very nature, biased toward technology, since the story it tells features scientists solving problems by using genetic engineering. “But we have made sure that some of the more controversial aspects are available for students to consider,” Lee says.

A section called “Risks and Benefits” explores some of the objections to genetic modification. “We make no editorial comment about whether these opinions are right or wrong,” Lee says. “Students evaluate the controversy using the scientific process, and develop their own conclusions.”

Future plans. The online resource continues to expand. In addition to the Journey of a Gene, which explains genetic engineering of plants, the teaching tool now includes information on animal genetic modification. A module called Enviropig lays out a similar learning path for students, who watch as Canadian scientists incorporate a new enzyme system that reduces the amount of phosphorus contained in swine waste from the genetically modified pigs.

Don Lee says a new online resource provides tools that help high-school science teachers provide instruction about biotechnology.

Don Lee says a new online resource provides tools that help high-school science teachers provide instruction about biotechnology.

These modules are being incorporated into specific lesson plans to help high-school science teachers work biotechnology into their school year. Agricultural science instructors and the FFA organization also are taking the app to new audiences. Nebraska and Iowa have put together a biotech-based Career Development Event as part of their annual FFA contests, and several other states plan to bring such an event to their contest roster. The online tools will help FFA members prepare for these events.

“The app has been a good first step in helping to reach students with information about biotechnology,” Lee says. “Society is counting on technology to provide solutions. This online resource gives scientists a chance to tell their story of how genetic engineering can help solve problems.”

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