New grant funds genetic engineering professional development for educators

Connecticut high school teachers use DNA analysis to investigate whether food contains GMO modified soy products. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
Connecticut high school teachers use DNA analysis to investigate whether food contains GMO modified soy products. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

The American public is growing increasingly skeptical about the safety of genetically modified (GM) foods. Despite consensus in the scientific community that foods containing GM ingredients are safe, nearly half of Americans believe otherwise. In 2016, a Pew Research Center survey found that 39 percent of the American public thought GM foods were worse for one’s health. That number climbed to 49 percent in a 2018 poll.

Researchers attributed the rise in health concerns to respondents with less knowledge of science. The researchers also cited that rapidly advancing technologies and changing regulations and definitions related to genetic engineering is leaving the public confused about the risks and benefits of GM foods. Younger adults are also more likely to consider GM foods a health risk.

In order to address misunderstandings about GM foods and provide information about the applications of genetic engineering in agriculture and other fields, a team in the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources (CAHNR) is developing a professional development program to enhance science literacy for educators and young adults. The team includes UConn Hartford County 4-H Extension Educator Jennifer Cushman, Tolland County 4-H Program Coordinator Maryann Fusco-Rollins and Professor Gerald Berkowitz of the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture.

The team is collaborating to create a curriculum with laboratory-based professional development for secondary school teachers on genetic engineering. The project aims to build the knowledge and confidence of educators and provide them with materials to deliver lessons related to genetic engineering in their classrooms. High school teachers will participate in training at the Storrs campus, where they will use laboratory resources and interact with academia and industry professionals. The networking opportunity also allows educators to share career opportunities in the field of genetics with students. In addition to the professional development workshop, the program will also prepare simpler exercises that do not require the resources of a classroom or lab setting, such as during 4-H activities, which can introduce scientific concepts to youth.

Jen-Cushman-pic
Jennifer Cushman.

“This project is geared towards educating, both formally and informally, teaching professionals and youth about the topic of genetic engineering,” says Cushman. “We want teachers, as well as our 4-H volunteers and staff, to be comfortable talking about these concepts. This is about addressing genetic engineering concepts young people are hearing and seeing so they can be informed.”

One goal of the program is to promote civil discourse, especially regarding a topic where there are strong beliefs.

“With a topic like this there are differing sides and we want to emphasize how to be respectful and civil while bringing in science,” says Cushman. “We want to teach the ways to do proper research in how to locate authentic and verifiable information to make claims.”

The team received a $150,000 grant through the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). AFRI research, education and extension grants are awarded to projects that address a variety of issues relating to food safety, nutrition, health and other topics pertaining to economic and environmental sustainability. Their grant application included letters of support from the Connecticut Department of Education and directors of agriculture and science programs throughout the state.

Cushman, Fusco-Rollins and Berkowitz are members of the College’s GMO Working Group, a volunteer unit within the College that brings together CAHNR researchers and staff members from a range of departments in a concerted effort to educate the public about GMOs and share science-based information in an unbiased and understandable way. The other members of the GMO Working Group will serve as an advisory committee on the scientific content for the curriculum as it is developed.

Bill Davenport, a former teacher at Nonnewaugh High School in Woodbury, gets some advice on using a micropipette from Yi Ma, left, a postdoctoral research associate, and Gerald Berkowitz, professor of plant science and landscape architecture as part of Camp DNA at UConn. Davenport recently became a 4-H Extension Educator in Litchfield County. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
Bill Davenport, a former teacher at Nonnewaugh High School in Woodbury, gets some advice on using a micropipette from Yi Ma, left, a postdoctoral research associate, and Gerald Berkowitz, professor of plant science and landscape architecture as part of Camp DNA at UConn. Davenport recently became a 4-H Extension Educator in Litchfield County. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

The team aims is to create six lessons that teachers will be able to implement in their own classrooms, including experiential teaching labs that will “provide high school students an opportunity to learn about DNA, cloning and biotechnology in a context that should be an engaging format,” says Berkowitz. One of the lessons will have the students evaluate if the class’s lunches contain GMO ingredients. From these materials, informal lessons will be adapted that will primarily be delivered through 4-H programming.

“We’ll develop a lesson toolkit for our 4-H programs that won’t necessarily require the lab skills or lab facilities that the formal ones require,” says Cushman. “This will give us opportunities to deliver genetic engineering lessons to youth all across Connecticut. We’ll be working with educators in all the counties in the 4-H program as well as the summer 4-H camps.”

Cushman says a curriculum writer with a background in science education is being hired to assist in formulating objectives, lesson plans, assessments and other teaching materials. Cushman herself has extensive experience in agricultural science education.

“Between my background as a certified secondary education teacher and our curriculum writer, we have a lot of pedagogical experience that we’re putting into this program,” says Cushman.

The team is aiming to welcome the first cohort of teachers to Storrs for the week-long professional development workshop in the summer of 2020. Cushman anticipates welcoming a dozen educators. There are plans to expand the number of participants to twenty-four in summer 2021.

“Educators will be engaging in all six lessons and have lab skill development to boost their confidence in that area,” says Cushman. “They’ll meet the members of the advisory committee and discuss career connections by speaking with individuals involved in genetic engineering careers. This program will connect educators to one another and develop a relationship with the University, the College and the Department of Extension.”

While space in the program will be limited, all of the instructional resources associated with the program are going to be made available online. They will be free for anyone to use in their classrooms.

The College hosts several professional development programs, such as Camp DNA, a two-week course that introduces biotechnology topics and laboratory activities to high school teachers and aspiring educators, and the Teacher Professional Learning workshop, Land and Water, a joint program between Extension and the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment.

“This project brings faculty and staff throughout the College together,” says Cushman. “We’re integrating a lot of different elements and building a bridge into UConn 4-H with this workshop. We’re carrying out the Extension mission of bringing research into the community.”

By Jason M. Sheldon

This work is supported by Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Professional Development for Secondary Teachers and Education Professionals Program Grant #2019-68010-29122 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.