The following is an excerpt of an article by Brittany Anderton on the website Biofortified about getting students excited about biotechnology. 

Biotechnology is poised to become one of the most valuable scientific revolutions of the 21st century. Because the field is developing so quickly, the gap between expert and non-expert knowledge is increasing at a time when societal decisions about it are becoming more and more important. So how do we promote biotechnology literacy in the classroom? What should non-experts know about genetic technologies in order to make informed decisions? I conducted a study to answer these questions, and here is what I found.

Even though scientific knowledge is an important part of science literacy, how people feel about a technology – their general positive or negative attitudes – also plays a role in their decision-making. In fact, there’s evidence that attitudes play a greater role than knowledge in determining students’ behavior toward biotechnology. I set out to understand what issues undergraduate students draw upon when they reason about genetic technologies. I also wanted to know whether classroom dialogue about biotechnology influences their attitudes and understanding. This information can provide a window into the conceptual frameworks that students use to make decisions about genetic technologies, and can help educators and communicators develop specific strategies for connecting with their audiences.

Students discuss biotechnology

Twenty years ago, my postdoctoral mentor Pamela Ronald launched an innovative course designed for non-science majors at UC Davis. Genetics and Society engages students in the science, politics, social issues, ethics, and economics surrounding biotechnology. It remains popular today. Recognizing the importance of dialogue around this complex topic, Pam introduced “discussion sections” into the course. During the discussion sections, students engage in rational discourse about a biotechnology issue – for example, whether or not all food containing genetically engineered (GE) ingredients should be labeled as “GMO”. The discussion sections provide an opportunity for students to share their thoughts and consider the many facets involved in decision-making about biotechnology. Scientific arguments used in the class are required to be evidence-based, and students are graded on the credibility of their sources. While students in Genetics and Society generally enjoy these peer-to-peer discussions, no one had looked closely at how they influence their understanding and attitudes about genetic technologies.

At the beginning of the course, I asked the students to state their attitudes on seven different biotechnology applications. Three topics related to food: whether or not we should label GMOs, whether GE of plants should be prohibited, and whether GE of animals should be prohibited. I also asked the students to justify their attitude for each topic. At the end of each weekly discussion section, during which a group of students presented on an individual application/topic, I collected this information a second time from the students in the audience. These pre-post attitudes with corresponding reasoning provided the data for my study.

To read the entire article, please visit the Biofortified website.