September 29, 2005
Children's blocks, libraries help students unravel genomics
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Simple children's plastic building blocks and other familiar objects are teaching high school and college students the intricacies of biotechnology and genomics through an educational model that Purdue University researchers have developed.
Called the Genomic Analogy Model for Educators (GAME), the strategy is designed to make genomic concepts easily understandable for students and the general population. The program is available on the Internet and also is being adapted for the visually impaired and being translated into Spanish.
"This program is meant to teach people who have no background in science about very complicated ideas using items that they are familiar with in their daily lives," said Barry Pittendrigh, Purdue entomology geneticist and co-developer of GAME "It's important for students to have some basic understanding of molecular biology, genetics and genomics since these concepts are becoming more important in our daily lives with the development of new food products and new medical diagnoses and therapies. Many of the concepts described using the GAME approach are important in a wide variety of areas, including medicine and agriculture."
Pittendrigh and Kathryn Orvis, a Purdue assistant professor in horticulture and 4-H, began developing the four-part educational project in 2001 based on some of the analogies Pittendrigh used in presentations to Purdue Cooperative Extension Service groups.
In one section called the Legos(r) Analogy Model (LAM), the four colors of the plastic building blocks represent one of the four bases that comprise DNA. By stacking the blocks in different combinations, students can picture how genes are built, or sequenced. This analogy provides an insight into genetic reaction. It also shows how sequencing works and why it is useful in furthering scientific research and for such things as analyzing evidence in criminal cases.
Brad Haskell, an adjunct science instructor at Husson College and Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor, Maine, has used the LAM activities for three years in teaching undergraduate cell biology and physiology classes. The students build their skills so they can understand the complex concepts involving the invisible DNA structure, he said.
"One class this summer was so enamored with the Legos(r) GAME that they scoured the yard sales to supplement our inventory of the blocks," Haskell said. "As an instructor, I'm encouraged by the ability of the GAME Web site to provide peer teaching and reinforcement of their classroom work.
"It's an exciting hands-on activity that helps students studying for health-care careers stay focused, engaged and challenged. Discussion during activities leads to a depth of understanding of the concepts that is necessary to comprehend genetic diseases such as Tay-Sachs disease."
Tay-Sachs is a genetic illness in which infants fail to develop motor skills, go blind within a year and generally die within a few years.
In all, the model includes four main lessons, each using a different analogy. In addition to Legos(r) as the building blocks of life, a small town, a library and a football field provide visual models for various scientific concepts.
The Small Town Analogy Model (STAM) teaches about the cell and the nucleus.
"In STAM, a town represents a cell and the nucleus is a library with reference books representing the necessary DNA that make up genes," Orvis said. "By comparing library materials and functions with the workings of an organism, students are able to understand molecular biology in familiar terms."
The teaching model is designed so that students can use the tutorials by themselves and then work with instructors and other students to further investigate what they've learned through questions and projects in class, Orvis said.
"GAME really opens up an opportunity for a lifetime of learning about advances in science in a way that's easily understandable," she said.
In collaboration with Pittendrigh and Orvis, Alan York and Chris Oseto, both Purdue Department of Entomology professors, along with graduate student Anne Radavich, are developing GAME packages for the visually impaired. Graduate students Charles Butler, Julia Bello and Yaritza Charneco are translating the materials into Spanish. Radavich and entomology department staff members Mike Mullis and Scott Charlesworth are developing materials that teachers can download from the Web site.
Purdue Extension Service provided funding for this project.
Writer: Susan A. Steeves, (765) 496-7481, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sources: Barry Pittendrigh, (765) 494-7730, email@example.com
Kathryn Orvis, (765) 494-8439, firstname.lastname@example.org
Related Web sites:
A publication-quality photo is available at http://news.uns.purdue.edu/uns/images/+2005/pittendrigh.legos.jpg
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