Why Americans Need to Know More about Biology and Genomics in the New Technological Era

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Professor of Biology, University of Southern Maine

Every American president promotes improvements in science, technology, engineering and math education to enable American students to better compete in the global high tech economy; and employers want colleges to place more emphasis on such instruction. In fact, improved education in science and technology – well beyond basic computer skills – is vital to more than occupational competitiveness. As democratic citizens, Americans must understand science basics, including in frontier areas such as molecular biology and genomics, if they are to grasp the ways in which new technologies are profoundly transforming our lives. Unfortunately, a recent study concludes that more than 30% of Americans are effectively scientifically illiterate, so educators have a long ways to go.

The Importance of Molecular Biology and Genomics

The molecular biology revolution of the mid-twentieth century turned DNA (the abbreviation for the molecule of heredity, deoxyribonucleic acid) into a household word. By the start of the current century, the first draft sequence of the human genome was announced with much fanfare. Technologies developed for the Human Genome Project jumpstarted a genomics revolution in biology and medicine. Scientists are gaining new understandings of microbes associated with humans, and screening for genetic-based diseases has expanded from single cells to whole genomes. Treatments for some disorders include stem cell therapy and therapeutic cloning.

Nowadays, informed citizens need basic scientific understanding of such critical matters as how genetic mutations are related to cancer, how DNA is used in criminal cases, and how organisms can be deliberately genetically modified. These and many other issues come up in our democracy, requiring informed decisions with broad ethical, legal and social implications.

Meeting the Educational Challenge

To help students and the public keep up, U.S. educational institutions are working to set standards for science education and decide how effective instruction can be delivered.

  • To boost learning in elementary and secondary schools, a variety of organizations are proposing standards, such as the Next Generation Science Standards from the National Research Council. Core standards for the life sciences deal with heredity and biological evolutions, where introductions to molecular biology and genomics are vital. 

  • Institutions of higher education also further the science literacy of the general public by training teachers, defining college-level science requirements, and training future scientists and medical professionals. The spread of requirements for college students to complete at least one year of science classes is already a major contributor to scientific literacy in America.

At all levels, much more remains to be accomplished – to train school teachers, upgrade college general education, and better integrate science education with quantitative training.

All School Teachers Need Training in Science and Math

Kids hear about complex issues at home, in the media, and in churches and stores. Treatments for people who are sick, ads promoting medicines and health supplements, controversies concerning abortion and evolution, arguments about genetically modified foods – all these and more come up and lead to questions. Regardless of what classes they lead, school teachers should be able to provide scientific perspectives and guidance to help children learn more. However, it is difficult for American teachers to help students feel comfortable with math and science, if the teachers themselves are not basically conversant. Educators and school districts need to push for more science and math content in training for all their teachers. That is the only way to prepare those bound to be the “first responders” to inquiring young minds.

Research Biologists Must Get More Involved in General College Courses

Too often, general education college science classes are taught by adjunct faculty who may not have adequate training, resources, or commitment to excellence. Additionally, college education in biology is often not coordinated with math and statistics training – even though quantitative reasoning is increasingly important in cutting-edge research.

The focus in most college biology departments has been on designing classes for majors, while general education gets too little attention. Biology majors get some training in molecular biology, and advanced undergraduates often take classes that focus on genomics and bioinformatics. But non-majors also need instructions, and science faculty members need to consider how to provide general courses incorporating ideas from molecular biology and genomics. A variety of curricular resources are available – from the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement, from the DNA Learning Center, from Project Kaleidoscope at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Hands-on learning also matters. As costs for genomic research decline, instructors will be able to do lab demonstrations of gene sequencing for as little as six cents for 1000 base pairs. However, even with such lower costs, follow up analyses require computer programs that as yet lack user-friendly interfaces and depend on sophisticated mathematics and statistics. The best way to teach this aspect of genomics is to have tenure-track faculty with research experience help other instructors, including adjunct faculty, keep instruction up to date in fast-growing fields.

Quantitative Reasoning Must be Front and Center

Adequate quantitative reasoning skills, grounded in math and statistics, are essential in all aspects of contemporary biology, particularly molecular biology and genomics. In laboratories, making solutions and dilutions, calculating probabilities of genetic outcomes, and statistically analyzing data are just a few of the skills necessary. Yet quantitative reasoning is, so far, insufficiently integrated into college biology classes, especially those for non-majors. Basic math and statistical reasoning need to become part of biology classes for all students, starting at the introductory level and continuing throughout the college curriculum. Of course, this will not be possible unless U.S. elementary and secondary schools also do a better job of laying foundations. Too often, we hear American youngsters (as well as adults) declare, “I’m not good at math.” That needs to change as fast as teachers at all levels of the educational system can do it.