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CUS-MI-BIO:  MILAN UNIVERSITY PROJECT FOR HIGH SCHOOL SCIENCE EDUCATION

 

Responding to the high-school teachers’ need to receive training in the latest scientific developments and swap advice, the University of Milan, besides its institutional duties in research and teaching at the University level, in May, 2004 has founded Cus-Mi-Bio (Centre University School of Milan for Bioscience Education), a new project to improve Science Education in High Schools.

 

Cus-Mi-Bio organizes training activities and updating courses directed to high school teachers and laboratories for high school students to increase their interest in biosciences with the final goal to ensure a new generation of researchers.

 

Cus-Mi-Bio works in close collaboration with the local school authorities, i.e. Lombardy Educational Office (Lombardy is a large area in the North of Italy with 991 public high schools, over 1500 life science teachers and over 342.000 students). Cus-Mi-Bio established also a fruitful collaboration with ELLS (European Learning Laboratories for the Life Science), the EMBL (European Molecular Biology Laboratories) branch for science education.

 

 

Major initiatives directed towards high school teachers are:

  • Theoretical courses: e.g. “Recent advances in molecular genetics.”
  • Practical courses: e.g. “From organisms to genes: what zebrafish can tell us”, “Genes and Diseases” (in collaboration with ELLS and EMBO).
  • E-learning activities. A web space called “Bioteach: tools and tips for biology teachers” has been created, where didactic material is published (in Italian and English). Registration is free and all material is downloadable. http://ariel.ctu.unimi.it/corsi/bioteach/home
  • Work groups for high school teachers, each coordinated by a University teacher, in order to prepare work-packages and develop new tools for teaching biosciences in high school, which are presented in more details below.

 

Work groups have developed Teaching packages to present important topics in high school classes. Up to now the following topics are treated in the teaching packages:

 

P GMO

The introduction of genetically engineered crops into our food supply has become a major controversy and is provoking world-wide debate.

This subject rises scientific, economic, social and health issues and gives the opportunity for a multidisciplinary integrated education approach.

Starting from newspaper articles and headlines, the students are invited to identify the major issues of the debate (techniques for GMO production, benefits and risks for the environment and human health,  social and economic issues etc).

This module contains information on:

how are GMO made?

which are the problems connected with genetically engineered food?

which are the risks and benefits of their use?

The goal is to help the students in creating their personal and most objective point of view on this subject by looking at the major claims on both sides of the debate, and basing their conclusions on scientific evidence and data rather than on fears and misinformation frequently diffused by the media.

Suggestions are given to the teachers on how to open and guide classroom discussion with the aid of reading materials, computer activities, websites visits, games and questions.

 

P Molecular genetics: simulation of a FISH analysis

The development of FISH (Fluorescent In Situ Hybridization), a molecular cytogenetic tool, was  essential for localizing  genes and other sequences on chromosomes and for disclosing the molecular genetic basis  of several genomic diseases.

This practical mini-course wants to provide teachers with materials and information useful for presenting to their classrooms an important issue in molecular genetics, i.e the chromosomal localization of human genes and the identification of the genomic regions involved in specific genetic diseases.

This module contains information on:

  • how to obtain metaphase chromosomes on a slide
  • how to search for chromosomal aberrations
  • which information can be provided by cytogenetic analysis
  • which are the limits of this type of analysis
  • how to identify specific genes on chromosomes
  • how to identify small chromosomal aberrations involving single genes

The students will construct a model simulating a FISH analysis and will acquire the basic principles of this technique and appreciate the high resolution power of FISH. Comparing cytogenetics and FISH, they will learn that only the latter is suitable for gene mapping and for the identification of small chromosomal aberrations involving a single gene.

 

P Molecular markers in corn

Molecular markers are stable changes (often affecting a single base only), that occur in short DNA sequences at specific locations on chromosomes. Geneticists have developed different methods to identify these changes. When individuals have different sequences in the DNA at a particular chromosome region, the locus is said to be polymorphic and can be used as genetic marker to construct genetic maps. In particular Simple Sequence Repeats (SSR) or micro-satellites are becoming standard DNA markers in corn.

Through this “journey” the students will observe the Mendelian segregation of R gene (that regulates anthocyanin pathway in several tissues), tightly linked to a specific SSR marker, in  F2 or back-cross (BC) populations.

Practically, students have to:   

  • verify the segregation of R gene in a F2 or BC seedlings population
  • extract DNA from single seedling
  • verify the co-segregation between R gene and SSR molecular Marker

Through this experience students will “discover” the Mendel’s Laws and how the plant breeder can use molecular marker-assisted breeding.

 

P Yeast as a honorary mammal

The use of experimental model systems has been essential for the development of modern molecular biology, and the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae is the prototype of such systems. In fact, although yeast cells can be grown as easy as bacteria, the structure of their cells and the molecular mechanisms controlling cell division and proliferation are conserved from yeast to man. For these and other reasons, S. cerevisiae is useful to understand complex biological processes at the molecular level. In this teaching package the life cycle, the genetic properties and the use of yeast to address relevant biological issues have been described and simple laboratory experiments are proposed:

  • microscopic observation of Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Schizosaccharomyces pombe yeast cells to compare their shape and mode of cell division;
  • mating of yeast cells of opposite mating type and selection of the diploids by genetic markers;
  • selection of cell division cycle (cdc) mutants based on their temperature-sensitivity, and observation of their terminal phenotype to establish the execution point of the mutation during the cell cycle.

 

P Bioethics

Nowadays, biotechnological research and scientific development have reached an extraordinary power of control over human life, which raises worries, criticism, discussions.

To reply to the need of considering ethical problems arising from scientific development, Cus-Mi-Bio has created a group opened to science and philosophy teachers.

The group decides the issues yearly; each member receives instructions for his/her field of interest; eventually, the assembly discusses the individual work.

Following the model of hypertext documents, the papers produced by the different groups are organised in a non-linear text, where you can jump from page to page by hot-words.

  

Major initiatives directed towards high school students are:

  • Try the BioLab
  • One week as reasercher
  • Partecipation of excellent students in top science research projects

 

P Try the BioLab

The work groups for high school teachers started with the project “Try the BioLab”, whose aim is to organize visits of classrooms to a fully equipped university laboratory to perform hands-on activities in some hot topics of genetics and biotechnology. The biolab activities have been attended, up to now, by > 4000 students.

Each activity lasts 3 hours. The students, with the help of lead teachers (high school teachers who have worked in one of the work groups to develop the materials) and tutors (young research students in their PhD) perform by themselves a simple experiment, comment their results and discuss conclusions.

 

P One week as researcher

 In taking care of high school students, Cus-Mi-Bio  balances between non-selective and selective activities: besides the project “Try the BioLab”, we set the competition “One week as researcher”, where the 10 best talented students chosen by a multiple choice test among all the students attending our labs are invited to University research labs, where they  join the real cutting edge research activity for one week at the end of the school (in June).

Due to the great success of this competition, we are working to offer more opportunities of stages, also in other European countries. If you are interested in exchanging talented students, contact us:

 

P Partecipation of excellent students in top science research projects

Several initiatives have recently been launched to support a more participatory, discovery-based instruction in order to convey the excitement of scientific research and discovery to most talented students. Cus-Mi-Bio has organized a long-term stage for the winners of the “One week as researcher” prize. These students will join a real research project called:

“Following the footsteps of evolution, looking for new genes”. The research project will consist in a bioinformatics analysis of the human genome, aimed at the discovery of novel and as yet unidentified genes. The students will be split into small groups, each of which will be assigned a different part of the human genome. This effort combines professional-quality research with a strategy for research-based undergraduate education.

 

 

Downloadable materials

Downloadable materials are available in Italian and everyone can download them freely from the Cus-Mi-Bio website: www.cusmibio.unimi.it

In each Handbook, teachers and students can find:

  • propaedeutic information
  • experimental protocols with detailed information on the different steps of the experiments
  • materials (ppt and animations) to support the understanding of the experimental techniques
  • glossary
  • lab safety instructions
  • self-assessment tests for students

 

The up to now developed modules are:

 

P GMO IDENTIFICATION:  During the lab activity, students learn how to screen DNA for the presence of a specific transgene. They run a PCR on DNA extracted from wild type and  potentially GM seeds with primers specific for the Bt gene. They analyze the PCR products by agarose gel electrophoresis and evaluate the results for the presence of the Bt transgene.

 

P DNA PROFILING: During the lab activity, students learn how DNA analysis is used for personal identification. They are provided with DNA samples from the “scene of the crime” and from ”suspects”. They run a PCR with primers specific for 3 human microsatellite markers. They analyze the PCR products by agarose gel electrophoresis and compare the DNA profiles to identify  the author of the crime.

 

P HUMAN GENETIC DISEASES: HEALTHY OR AFFECTED? This is a simulation of genetic counselling and prenatal diagnosis of genetic diseases by means of  RFLP (Restriction Fragments Length Polymorphism) analysis. The activity can be used to introduce some of the issues that arise from genetic screening and to emphasize the importance of genetic counselling.

Students draw families’ pedigrees based on the information given in different scenarios. Each group of students is given PCR products obtained from members of one different familiy and upon restriction enzyme digestion and electrophoresis analysis, is asked to determine the mode of inheritance of the genetic condition involved. So they identify the genotypes of all the family members studied and they can answer the proband’s request.

 

P BACTERIAL TRANSFORMATION (with two modules): 

WHITE OR BLUE ?

Students learn how quickly bacteria grow, and how bacteria can be modified to produce a wide variety of useful substances.

Students are provided with competent E. coli cells that will be transformed with a plasmid vector (wild type or recombinant). The plasmids carry a selectable marker (antibiotic resistance) to select for transformants. In the recombinant plasmid, expression of the beta-galactosidase gene is affected and, by growing cells on  X-gal plates, cells transformed with the vector (blue) or the recombinant plasmid (white) can be recognized by the colour of the colonies. Transformation efficiency can also be easily calculated during the experiment.

 

P IS IT RECOMBINANT?

Picking up the blue and white colonies and suspending them in different test tubes, after 16-18 hours students will extract DNA by the boiling technique. Gel electrophoresis will separate recombinant or non recombinant plasmids from white and blue colonies respectively from genomic DNA. After restriction enzyme digestion the inserted DNA fragment can be detected and sized. The aim is to demonstrate the importance of cloning genes and prepare genomic libraries with recombinant plasmids.

 

P BIOINFORMATICS ACTIVITIES (with two modules)

These  are computer-based activities to give an introductory view of the main biomedical resources available on the web. They comprise:

SURFING AMONG GENOMES

The wealth of databases containing genomic information and the easy internet access can be an invaluable tool in performing genetic studies and identifying important DNA sequences.

Students become familiar with:

  • accessing genome information on internet
  • consult biomedical databases
  • comparing genomes of different organisms
  • retrieving data about a gene or a chromosome region from public databases
  • comparing and extracting information from nucleotide and amino acid sequences
  • matching gene mutations and diseases.

Useful internet sites and their contents are identified and described, and some understanding of their current limitations is provided. The use of these tools has become more and more essential in cutting edge research.

Through this “journey” students discover how scientists use genetic information on the web, and how to ask (and answer) their own questions about the genome.

 

P GENE HUNTING

Students are given an unknown DNA sequence and have to:

identify the “mysterious” gene to which it belongs by querying nucleotide databases,

find its chromosomal position,

retrieve the corresponding full-length cDNA sequence,

translate it into a protein sequence. Students can also visualize the 3-D structure of the encoded protein and find the genetic disease that has been associated with alterations of the gene. Comparisons with orthologous sequences in other species are used to show conservation through the phylogenetic tree and the utility of model organism studies.

 

 

2006 main events:

 

February, 23rd – 24th,

Università degli Studi di Milano,

via Celoria, 26 - 20133  Milan, Italy

“Genes and Diseases”

A teachers’ updating course in collaboration with ELLS on genetic diseases caused by single genes mutations (monogenic diseases) and on strategies to identify the underlying mutations.

In this course three mutations in the fibrinogen gene cluster responsible for afibrinogenemia will be studied by means of automated DNA sequencing.

 

March, 8th,

Università degli Studi di Milano,

via Celoria, 26 - 20133  Milan, Italy

“Bioethical and Social Issues related to DNA Fingerprinting”

Discussion on the implications of bioethics on genetic testing.

Invited speakers: dr. Antonella Piga, researcher at the University of Milan, Forensic Medicine Institute, dr. Marzio Capra, councellor at the Milan Court for Forensic Medicine.

 

April, 26th,

Università degli Studi di Milano,

via Celoria, 26 - 20133 Milan, Italy

“GMO as Natural Evolution of Agricultural Productivity”

Discussion on agricultural productivity and the modern technologies for generating genetically modified organisms.

Invited speaker: prof. Maurizio Cocucci, full professor at the Dept. of Plant Physiology and Biochemistry, University of Milan

 

May, 23rd    

Università degli Studi di Milano,

via Celoria, 26 - 20133 Milan, Italy

“One Week as Researcher”

competition for high school students who have attended “Try the BioLab in the year 2005/06.

 

June, 15th

Award Ceremony of the students for the assignment of the “One Week as Researcher” prize.

Winners will be involved in research projects such as: “Find the Mutation”, “Genome Analysis Techniques”, “Foresee the protein structure”, “How to control the Cell Cycle”, “Arabidopsis and human genetic diseases”…

 

Fore more information on Cus-Mi-Bio please go to:

www.cusmibio.unimi.it


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