A website that uses videos and games to teach the latest in science received over 50 million page views last year. (Noelle Swan contributed to this story)
Advances in science are occurring at a record pace, presenting a significant challenge for teachers. Because it can take five years for textbooks to go from concept to distribution, they may already be outdated even before they reach the classroom. A textbook is dead, while science is living and constantly moving forward.
The Genetics Science Learning Center (GSLC) at the University of Utah, has found one solution to the problem. With the internet as a rapid publishing tool, their website Learn.Genetics teaches up-to-date science through animations, games, and articles. The formula has made it one of the top websites in the world, garnering 50 million page views last year alone.
"One of the reasons I think our materials are so popular is that for many of them we are right on the cutting edge of science," says GSLC director Louisa Stark. The site covers new science of DNA cloning, drug addiction, stem cells, and other topics. She adds, "When it comes to epigenetics, we have some of the only materials out there."
The question comes up every year in Keri Shingleton's high school biology class in Tulsa, Oklahoma, "How can genetically identical twins grow into such different people?" For years, Shingleton had no good answer.
After all, her students had learned how the genome, all the DNA in our cells, makes us who we are. Genes within our DNA carry instructions for building the proteins that make up our physical characteristics, such as eye color and height. Identical twins inherit identical genomes from their parents, and so should be exactly the same.
Now when students ask the question, she tells them to go to the Learn.Genetics website. There, an artistic video demonstrates that many differences in twins are caused by exposure to different environmental factors – e.g. nutrition, pesticides, and medications - which change their epigenomes.
The epigenome is the sum of chemical modifications that are made to the DNA genome. Adding and removing epigenetic tags can control how much protein product is made. Just as important as DNA, epigenetic changes can occur throughout one's lifetime, and can lead to risks for diabetes, cancer, and other diseases.
Students learn these concepts through interactive tools such as by becoming a mother rat in the virtual reality game, "Lick Your Rats." Students control how much the mother licks her pup, and see how that action changes a specific gene, and certain aspects of the brain. These changes influence whether the pup will have a calm or anxious demeanor as an adult.
Shingleton thinks it's a good way to teach a complicated topic like epigenetics. "I think I will continue to [use the site], even after it is in the textbooks, because it's so interactive and engaging for students."
Developing a World Class Science Education Site
While teachers are drawn to the website for its accurate, up-to-date information, students like that the site resembles YouTube or a video game more than it does a classroom worksheet.
Nearly twenty years ago, the first version of the website was simply text on a screen. The center has since learned that having the audience virtually live the science is key not only for attracting an audience, but also for teaching.
"You can throw [together] something and make it fun, but you can also do things like make somebody grab for a certain thing, or give them a choice. Make them actually think about what they're doing," says GSLC associate director Kevin Pompei. "That way, you tie the interactivity to something that also makes them learn."
He adds that a large part of the website's success comes from heavy involvement of
those who know students best: teachers. The GSLC chose 19 teachers out of 350 applicants from across the country to help develop the epigenetics module. The teachers learned about the latest research in epigenetics directly from some of the world's most prominent geneticists. They then brainstormed how to develop visual tools to explain the epigenome in a way that would work well in the classroom.
Much like producing a movie, it took the collaborative effort of 21 GSLC staff members including programmers, graphic artists, a voice over artist, and music composer, to transform the teachers' ideas into digital lessons. "We take the core of what they [teachers] come up with, and then we figure out how do we make this fun and interesting," says Pompei.
Pompei says it's satisfying to know that they've created one of the top science education websites. "It feels great because you know so many millions of people are looking at that one thing," he says. "[For example] somebody's learning somewhere about how small atoms really are, and how small DNA really is, so you have to figure that has some sort of impact on the world."
The GSLC is now developing modules for teaching the human microbiome: the microorganisms, such as bacteria, that live in and on our bodies. It is due to be released in early Fall, just in time for school.