Website review: Learn.Genetics

This week’s Science is featuring an essay by the first winners of the “SPORE” competition, the team behind the Learn.Genetics and Teach.Genetics websites. Every month Science is going to recognize an excellent online science learning tool, focused on improving science education. I say, good for them!

The essay (free), by Louisa Stark and Kevin Pompei of the University of Utah’s Genetic Science Learning Center, describes all the work that goes into their development of “learning modules”:

Our development process for a module begins with a summer workshop, advertised to teachers through our e-mail list. An online application enables us to select an outstanding group of 12 to 18 grade-appropriate teachers who represent a diversity of teaching experience, student populations, and locales; about 5 to 10% of applicants are accepted. Participants receive travel expenses and a stipend. A typical 4-day summer workshop begins with talks by scientists and discussions of scientific articles, from which participants distill important concepts for their students. The teachers and our staff work together to define the "big ideas" that emerge from these concepts, around which the module will be organized. Small groups of teachers then develop each big idea, drafting online and classroom learning experiences designed to assist students in learning. The workshops offer a rare opportunity for teachers to develop creative ideas for curriculum materials that will be used worldwide, to interact with scientists, to update their content knowledge, and to work with other teachers from across the country. A glimpse into one summer workshop can be seen at http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/epigenetics/credits/. In it, teachers describe ideas that became the Insights From Identical Twins movie and "Gene control" interactive animation on Learn.Genetics and the "DNA and histone model" activity on Teach.Genetics. After the summer workshop, our team works with the materials the teachers drafted. Ideas may be combined, modified, expanded or contracted, as we plan a module that addresses the big ideas while fitting the anticipated cost within the available budget.

When I read that, I was a little skeptical that this process would result in anything very useful. Sounds too much like “design by committee”. And indeed, when you look at the website, at first glance it’s visually bland and hard to read. It’s arranged in a tabular format, little color, tiny images, and very small text. This would be a tough website for people with sight problems.

But the information in each of the modules is quite good. And in particular, the little animated slideshows are effective in directing attention to a limited number of points. It strikes me as a better way to get the basics across than if they had put the same information into a short text.

For example, I went first into their “Personalized Medicine” module. It has a little section called “Making SNPs Make Sense”, which has a little slideshow animation about SNPs, haplotypes and drug reaction animations. The information is all basically correct and appropriately simplified (they illustrate only three-SNP haplotypes and gloss over the idea of population frequencies, for example. The final section, applying an example of drug response to albuterol, makes sense but is speculative – it would be hard for a student to know which parts are real science and which parts are projection about what might be true in the future. But I think the whole thing was admirably easy to understand, and I would expect students to come away at least knowing the basics of SNPs. Meanwhile, the additional text after the animation uses consistent graphics to give a few more details about SNP discovery and association by linkage.

That’s just one example; there are many other online tools here that could be pulled up on classroom computers. I especially like the “Make a Karyotype” exercise – it’s like “Sesame Street” science, and the website provides printable PDFs for this and many other potential in-class exercises. One of the best is “Cell Size and Scale”, which has a gives you a zoomable image starting from ordinary objects and scaling down past different single-celled organisms, human cell types, proteins, and all the way down to atoms and molecules. Other parts of the site don’t have animated features but are still interesting – the short article on PTC tasting polymorphisms is a good example.

There could be more links to sites that give further information. The National Library of Medicine Science Primer would be a next logical step for students who wanted to learn more, and there are many others. I continue to think that the text is too small, and that the site should incorporate more narrative elements. Some students will learn about inheritance more effectively by hearing stories about traits in families, not only by watching little cartoon people pass candy necklaces to their cartoon offspring.

Overall I was quite impressed by Learn.Genetics and Teach.Genetics as resources for teachers. Bruce Alberts’ editorial promises another site as part of the “SPORE” series each month.

References:

Alberts B. 2010. Science education web sites. Science 327:504. doi:10.1126/science.1187267

Stark LA, Pompei K. 2010. Making genetics easy to understand. Science 327:538-539. doi:10.1126/science.1183029