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Delving into a difficult issue

Gill Brown explores a free resource for teaching genetics at GCSE

The civil servant representing Her Majesty's Government was absolutely clear: "We fully support the actions of Genes UK and we are in no doubt that they will continue to act in a responsible manner."

Some of those in court booed and hissed before the moderator drew things to a close.

This "courtroom drama" was role-played by teachers at a conference launching Genetics and Citizens, a project for key stage 4 in science, English and citizenship. It was the final lesson in a course designed to be taught over a term or in discrete sections.

Discussion about politics, ethics and profits is backed up by solid science, and each lesson creates different scenarios based on genetic technology.

As the course develops, students get to grips with increasingly complex arguments, learning enough about the science behind the debates to question and analyse the material. "We know that role-play techniques work well with complex ideas," says Vivi Lachs, curriculum director at Highwire City Learning Centre in Hackney, London.

"Teaching genetics can be challenging in a classroom of students from different cultural backgrounds. Developing arguments through characters is one way of engaging with facts and debate from a variety of perspectives."

For example, Nasrin, a young singer, wants to change the colour of her eyes to advance her singing career. The lesson takes students through options arising from the debate around manipulating DNA and designer babies. It is accompanied by worksheets on the basics of gene therapy.

So does this fit into the new science curriculum? In 2006, awarding bodies are changing their specifications to meet the QCA requirements specifying "more depth and less breadth".

Sheila Curtis, head of science at Haggerston School for Girls, used the project as part of the Twenty First Century Science syllabus she has been piloting for York University and OCR. "For students wanting to go into the science in depth, 'Genetics and Citizens' offers as much as was previously available in double science, but it embraces ideas more fully," she says.

However, some teachers are concerned. "It was thought-provoking, but I would like to see the bulk of it used in English and RE with perhaps a science teacher as support," says Maureen Hayward, head of science at Rooks Heath High School in Harrow.

In fact, such a model is being collaboratively developed at Haggerston school to encourage students to apply literacy skills across science and English.

Meanwhile, teachers can also access individual modules as stand-alone lessons. For instance, Rashid is a boy with behavioural difficulties. His family and doctors, politicians and research scientists all attempt to decide his future. Students debate in character, produce a news report and write a conference paper, as they learn about eugenics. While video and multimedia do play a large part throughout the Highwire course, each lesson can be taught without these elements. However, as one student remarked, it would be much less fun.

* Genetics and Citizens can be downloaded free from www.highwire.org.uk

A DVDCD-Rom is also available free Email: genetics@highwire.org.uk

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