Jefferson Middle School Students Study Genetics Through Project-Based Learning

Jefferson Genetics Project: Jefferson Middle School AT Science student, Cordell Simmons, discusses his presentation on GMO salmon to teacher, Erin Knapp.

“OncoMice are genetically modified to have an active cancer gene making them likely to develop cancer. Scientists hoped that this trait would make them useful as test subjects for cancer research,” said Jefferson Middle School eighth grader, Kiya McMurdy. “It is an example of insertion in genetics because they are putting the cancer genes into the mice. But there is a debate as to whether or not it is ethical to do this to them. We researched the pros and cons of this genetic engineering technique.”

Kiya and her research partner, fellow eighth grader Lily Morales, created a presentation on their iPads documenting their results. The students presented their GMO projects to sixth grade students. Studying GMOs is part of the larger genetics curriculum in the Regents Living Environment class. A GMO, or genetically modified organism, is an organism whose genetic makeup has been modified in a laboratory using genetic engineering or transgenic technology. This creates combinations of plant, animal, bacterial and virus genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods.

Before doing their projects, students learned about DNA, RNA, and protein synthesis. Then, they examined Mendelian and Non-Mendelian genetics, mutations, and methods of genetic testing and engineering. In their next unit, students will investigate evolution and the mechanisms behind species diversity in addition to the various lines of evidence that help scientists answer questions about earth’s history.



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GMOs are especially interesting because we all interact with them in the grocery store, at the pharmacy, and many people may have already formed opinions about their use. This project asked students to choose a GM organism, investigate the historical significance of the original organism and why it was selected for genetic modification. Then, students located data that would help them form an opinion on the current and future use of their GMO. Students studied apples, bananas, corn, soy, pineapple, salmon, insulin, pigs, alfalfa, trees and mice that are modified to study cancer treatments.

Students quickly uncovered the ethical complexity of the technology. Though many of the technologies benefited humans, not all benefited every stakeholder. Most students began the project with a well formed opinion and just as many students ended the project with mixed feelings about the use of some GMOs.

“Students benefited from having the opportunity to teach younger students about genetics through their research,” said Ms. Muscaro. “Some of the fun for me was hearing from the sixth grade teachers what a good job their former students had done. Another highlight was listening to my students teach the sixth graders what a gene is or what hereditary means. I also learned a great deal by reviewing and supporting students in their research. When everyone is able to investigate something of interest to them, we all have the opportunity to learn from each other.”


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