Genetically enhanced

18th March 2005 at 00:00
Role-playing was a source of motivation for a Wellcome Trust genetics pilot aiming to score with science and citizenship. Vivi Lachs reports

"At the end of the day, it's my blood, it's coming from my body, how can you class it as your own?"

"You didn't know that the blood had anything to do with saving people. We found that out, we did the tests and patented it and it's our blood" "But if I hadn't given..." "You wouldn't know..."

This alarming conversation is the result of a role-play based on the court case centred on gene patenting. The exchange was part of the final class in a project called Genetics and Citizens run by Highwire City Learning Centre and funded by the Wellcome Trust as part of its Society Awards to develop a unit of work for the science and citizenship curricula. The aims are to engage students with ethical issues about different aspects of genetics and help them develop skills to analyse complex positions.

The project was a pilot with Year 10 classes in three Hackney schools in east London, two science classes and an English class. Initial classes used digital presentations to tell stories about designer babies, requiring the students to make choices about how to change eye colour, or how to "produce" a baby with perfect pitch. They had to consider who was involved with the different choices and question them: the pharmacist who sells genetic drugs; the optician who prescribes contact lenses; and the surgeon who will operate gene therapy.

In another lesson, students in role considered the political issue of how information from genetic screening could be used, and acted in a fictional television documentary where four-year-old Rashid, about to start school, was prescribed medication to combat a pre-disposition to violence and drug abuse. "I don't believe in giving drugs to control people, but if it's what the doctors and the government are suggesting then I think maybe it's the best thing" - grandmother; "I'm afraid of Rashid giving the family a bad name, but I want him to grow up normally, as a normal child" - father; "Two weeks ago we were sitting there watching Coronation Street and our windows were smashed" -pensioner; "These drugs are supposed to stop drug addiction, but can these drugs actually trigger the addiction because you are telling a four-and-a-half-year-old that drugs are good?" - school nurse.

It may look like the aims and content of this project do not have a lot to do with ICT - the aims being to do with the development of analysis and understanding in science, to cross-contextualise that information, and to debate and communicate these ideas. However, the teaching method uses integrated multimedia, video editing and web authoring at its very core.

"We want the technology to be as transparent as possible, so that attention is not taken away from the content," says Sophie Dauvois, co-developer of the project. Zia Mehmet, Highwire centre manager stresses that: "ICT is highly motivating for the students and focuses their attention, so we can use that to encourage them to think deeply about difficult ideas."

As the lessons progressed, students built up a bank of questions for evaluating information, such as "Who will benefit from this?" "What is the risk?" "Is it available to all?" "Could this cause discrimination?" Using this analytic framework, students worked in groups to explore cloning, genetic testing, genetically modified food and animals. They critically read newspaper articles, and spent two days at Highwire making videos and multimedia web pages to put across the complexity of the arguments.

The teachers were enthusiastic. Jane Bassett, head of English at Stoke Newington School, North London, integrated the project into schemes of work that included media analysis and creative writing. Bibi Rahim, head of science at Hackney Free and Parochial School wanted to use the project again, but in sections: "Teaching genetics is complicated. In the genetics module there is hardly any practical, and not any genetics experiments, so having to act it out and bring it alive is very good and can enhance the science lessons. They love digital recorders and making videos and it's amazing how they seemed to know what to do straight away".

Sheila Curtis, head of science at Haggerston School, describes how students were engaging with "the complexities of types of decisions people are having to make in an ethical framework", but as for the final court case stand-up row, she laughs and adds, "They were almost being naughty, but they were in role, doing what we asked them to do."

Vivi Lachs is the curriculum director of Highwire, Hackney City Learning Centre:

The students' website Genetics and Citizens can be viewed in the Student Showcase at

A conference to launch the materials will be held on May 17 after which all resources can be downloaded free from the Teacher Resources section of the website.

Email: for more details.


How the technology was used

Adverts: in threes, students were given an information sheet, science sheet, real example and relevant images detailing one aspect of genetics.

With camera and microphone, they filmed the images and recorded a voice-over to make a 30-second advert for that aspect of genetics. They filmed in one take, so that without editing, they could view them at the beginning of the next class to discuss the promises of genetics. They had 20 minutes for the task.

RADIO FEATURE: in groups (cloning, genetic testing, GM food, GM animals, gene patenting) prior to making their video, students read and discussed issues cards with different opinions and thoughts of characters who would hold those positions. Each student took a character, and with a real life case study, considered how those characters would respond in that context.

Recording a radio show, they passed a digital audio recorder between them explaining their points of view.

DOCUMENTARIES:In groups students wrote real, fictional, or science-fiction storylines. They made storyboards for documentary videos containing at least three perspectives. Students filmed, acted, re-filmed, and edited.

Web pages: after making their films, students put them into context on a web page. They added text with additional perspectives and information not detailed enough in their documentaries. They drew cartoons to make poignant points. The skills needed to use the software were taught as and when needed.

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