High schools new breeding ground for stem cell studies

Zoe Pleasure

With the recent opening of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine in February, Urban students are going behind the headlines to study stem cells.

The Urban science department incorporated a unit about stem cells into the sophomore Science 2A class two years ago. According to science teacher Mary Murphy, students find stem cells intriguing because of the science fiction aspect of the research being done such as the potential for cloning.

“Let’s build a clone!” Murphy said, describing sophomores’ reactions to the stem cell curriculum they were being taught.

Jayne Colorado-Caldwell (’12) enthusiastically remembered her class debate over stem cells, in which students researched and argued a opinion regarding the controversy surrounding stem cell research. “That (debate) was fun. That really hit home the ideas,” Colorado-Caldwell said.

In 2009, then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the California Stem Cell and Biotechnology Education and Workforce Development Act, which encourages schools to teach students about stem cells. The state suggests that the specialized curriculum be included in the career development programs in California’s schools.

Urban added its own stem cell curriculum in the 2009-2010 school year. According to Murphy, she and her fellow Science 2A teacher Sara Clowes created the stem cell curriculum because they were “looking for ways to incorporate current issues in biological science into the 2A curriculum. Since IVF embryos are at the heart of the controversy, it was a natural link to discuss stem cells after learning about how humans create gametes, sperm and eggs.”

Murphy describes the discussions in the class as pushing “the ethical question — that science does not only happen in a laboratory — and the question of ‘should we do science just for the sake of doing science?’”

Students also grapple with what sort of risks should be taken regarding therapies. After the students learn the science behind stem cells they must question the reasons why stem cells are controversial and why the topic is discussed currently.

After noticing that there were not many classes that discussed stem cell biology and research, Laurel Barchas, a graduate from UC Berkeley, designed the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine stem cell curriculum. In a phone interview with the Legend, she described the main goals for lessons were to “get across that a lot of the stem cell biology can be used to teach concepts that are already taught like learning about cell mitosis… those can all be made more interesting and exciting by teaching about stem cells.”

Barchas said that through questionnaires filled out by students indicate that the curriculum is providing students with “some real actual facts to base their career decisions on.” Students who don’t experience the curriculum “aren’t really exposed to actual facts, actual research that is going on,” Barchas said.

Even though students may not pursue a career in stem cell research, “it really has helped students understand what the issues are with stem cell research, and what an embryonic stem cell is, and what’s the big deal with embryonic stem cell research” said Barchas.

Barchas also hopes her curriculum will help California teens become more educated voters.

The topic of stem cells allows students to consider a science question in a more analytical manner. In order to formulate a clear opinion on stem cells, students have to understand how stem cells work, which is why both Urban and the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine have chosen to teach high school students about the mechanics of stem cells.