A Healthier Outlook for High School Science
words by kara liane miller
or some high school students in grades 9 through 12, applying or using their knowledge about genetics and cancer involves a journey through the lives of teenage fraternal twins via an innovative curriculum called BioCONECT (Biology of Cancer: Online Education Connecting Teens). Twins Steve and Nikki’s mother has recently been
diagnosed with breast cancer. By gathering, analyzing, and interpreting the medical data, and participating in the message board, students learn about the disease, its genetics and its treatment.
With major support from the Val Skinner Foundation, The LIFE Center [Ladies Professional Golf Association In the Fight to Eradicate Breast Cancer] at The Cancer Institute of New Jersey [CINJ] created this new approach to teaching science in the classroom. The project stemmed from a “meeting of the minds” between faculty at The LIFE Center at CINJ and the Center for School and Community-Based Health Education (CSCHE) at UMDNJ’s School of Public Health. The LIFE Center has the breast cancer genetics knowledge and treatment-knowhow while CSCHE contributed the curriculum development expertise and access to school districts. They pooled their skills and talents to create this novel curriculum to teach not only students, but their teachers and families about breast cancer biology, genetics and risk factors.
Through an online forum, students begin by helping Steve and Nikki through the medical questions and psychological issues that children may face after the discovery of a parent’s cancer diagnosis. The twins pose questions to the students, such as: “Why does mom need so many medical tests?” and “What does a gene have to do with cancer?” Students research the answers, thereby expanding their knowledge of the biology and genetics of cancer, while exploring potential risk reduction behaviors.
BioCONECT was pilot-tested in 23 New Jersey school districts in 2008 and has received much positive feedback. As teachers noted, “This was the best workshop I’ve ever been to!” and “Very informative. Good way of using real-life situation for students to understand and gain knowledge.” Students improved their knowledge about breast cancer, but did not have increased anxiety about cancer. They became more motivated to learn how to reduce their own cancer risk. Results of the pre- and post-tests also suggest that students’ attitudes toward science were more positive.
One teacher reported that a student in her class using the new curriculum had a parent who was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly thereafter. Because of her new understanding about the disease, this student was able to explain to her older siblings exactly what was happening to their mother and reduce their anxiety about their mother’s new diagnosis.
Through more widespread distribution and implementation of the program, BioCONECT hopes to advance breast cancer knowledge and increase the number of students intending to pursue non-traditional health-related and biomedical careers. To date, more than 150 teachers have been trained in BioCONECT throughout New Jersey and South Carolina.