This work was supported by a grant from the Italian Ministry of Education, Progetto SeT “Materiali per l'educazione scientifica e tecnologica,” Progetto no. 394-C.M. 131.
Innovative tools for scientific and technological education in italian secondary schools†
Article first published online: 3 NOV 2006
Copyright © 2004 International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Inc.
Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education
Volume 32, Issue 2, pages 78–83, March 2004
How to Cite
Santucci, A., Mini, R., Ferro, E., Martelli, P. and Trabalzini, L. (2004), Innovative tools for scientific and technological education in italian secondary schools. Biochem. Mol. Biol. Educ., 32: 78–83. doi: 10.1002/bmb.2004.494032020317
- Issue published online: 3 NOV 2006
- Article first published online: 3 NOV 2006
- Manuscript Revised: 29 SEP 2003
- Manuscript Received: 9 SEP 2003
- molecular biology;
- secondary school
This paper describes the project “Biotech a Scuola” (“Biotech at School”), financed by the Italian Ministry of Education within the SeT program (Special Project for Scientific-Technological Education). The project involved the University of Siena, five senior and junior secondary schools in the Siena area, and a private company. Twenty-three teachers from diverse fields and 318 students from 15 classes were involved. The aim of the project was to improve scientific-technological teaching by providing schools with the support and materials necessary to understand some fundamental aspects of biotechnology. With this project we propose a model of close cooperation among various educational sectors with the goal of teaching junior and senior high school students some of the theory and practice of modern biotechnology.
Adequate scientific and technological knowledge is a major aspect of everyone's educational background. It requires appropriate scientific-technological teaching in school. The need for innovation of educational tools and strategies is particularly evident in the scientific and technological field, where classic teaching methods have very often proved inadequate. In this context, biotechnologies play a preeminent role because of their importance in improving the comprehension of natural processes and in promoting science and technology. Nevertheless, biotechnologies are often the subject of controversy and debate. An adequate biotechnological education is fundamental because it allows young people to learn the scientific and methodological bases of biotechnologies, to understand how biotechnology can be successfully used while respecting basic ethical principles, and to learn to critically analyze the methods and results of the research so as to evaluate the advantages and the potential risks. Biotechnological teaching can also influence society in general as a result of its extra-scholastic transmission, particularly within the family environment. Indeed, this could be the best way to disseminate correct information on this topic, as a valid alternative to the often inadequate and misleading media information.
In 1999, the Italian Ministry of Education established the SeT program (Special Project for Scientific-Technological Education) to promote scientific and technological knowledge among students by improving the quality of teaching and the quality and availability of facilities. The program promoted different activities and financed the purchase of laboratory equipment . Three strategies were adopted:
Funding of schools: A total of 1500 schools were partially financed for training and upgrading of equipment.
Leader programs: During the first phase of the SeT program, eight projects proposed by schools of different levels were approved.
“Materials for scientific and technological education” program (C.M. 131/2000): Twenty-seven projects were selected from among 2000 proposals; they dealt with various topics and were planned by networks of secondary and primary schools in association with universities, research centers, public and private organizations, and companies. The main objective was to provide materials for scientific and technological education. (Approved proposals within the C.M. 131/2000 program can be found at www.bdp.it/set/area1_esperienzescuole/cm131/5.htm.) The “Biotech a Scuola” project described in this paper is one of the 27 approved proposals (project no. 394).
“BIOTECH A SCUOLA”
“Biotech a Scuola” was planned in collaboration with the Istituto Tecnico Industriale Statale-Liceo Scientifico Tecnologico “Tito Sarrocchi” of Siena, the leader school in the project, and involved four more secondary schools (Table I) as well as Bio-Rad Laboratories s.r.l. (Segrate-Milano, Italy). The main goal is to provide schools with the support necessary to deal with the scientific and experimental, but also social and ethical, aspects of biotechnology, thus helping teachers to bridge the gap between science in the classroom and biotechnology in the real world. An inquiry-based approach providing real-world scenarios is used to explore the central molecular framework of biology: from DNA to RNA to PROTEIN to TRAIT.
The main steps of the project are: stimulate students, pose questions, conduct experiments, obtain results, draw conclusions, and make real-world connections.
Structure of the Project: The Method—
The project consists of six units (Table II). The first unit, “What is the Central Dogma of Biology?”, explores the basic concepts necessary to familiarize the students with the theoretical and experimental contents of the following units. The “protagonists” of the experiments, DNA and proteins, are introduced, and their role in the different biological processes is analyzed.
The second unit, “What do you need to do biotechnology in the laboratory?”, introduces the students to the basic equipment of a biochemistry and molecular biology laboratory and to specific instruments that will be used during the experiments. Students are also informed about the rules of behavior and safety to be adopted in a laboratory.
The real experimental activity takes place in units 3, 4, and 5 and consists of two exercises. Their common purpose is to give the students the opportunity to learn and apply important biochemistry and molecular biology techniques and to understand how these techniques are used to solve real problems.
The first exercise (units 3 and 4) is called “The Secrets of the Rain Forest—Use of biotechnologies to identify and purify putative therapeutically active proteins”; it consists of a partially true and partially simulated experience. In unit 3, the students purify a medicinal fluorescent protein from bacteria in which the gene for this protein had been previously cloned; they pretend that the protein came from the leaves of a mysterious plant found during a journey in a South American rain forest where it is used by natives to cure cancer. During the laboratory sessions, the students learn about the relationships between genes and proteins, about the process of moving genes from one organism to another with the aid of a plasmid, and about the use of chromatography to purify proteins. In unit 4, they learn about the laws regulating clinical experimentation on a presumed therapeutically active compound and its subsequent use as a drug. Then they simulate all the phases of the process of putting the previously purified recombinant protein on the market. This unit tackles scientific, ethical, economic, and legal issues and challenge the students with real-life situations that may be encountered when bringing a biotechnological drug onto the market.
The second exercise (unit 5) is called “How Can DNA Analysis Solve Investigative Problems?—Use of biotechnologies in forensic medicine and diagnostics.” The students simulate the investigation of a murder and try to identify the killer using DNA fingerprinting. This is a powerful analytical technique widely used in forensic medicine to analyze differences and similarities between people at the genetic-molecular level. The students learn about restriction digestion of DNA, separation and analysis of DNA fragments by electrophoresis, and how these techniques can be combined to obtain a DNA fingerprint.
All the experiments are carried out with commercial classroom kits specifically designed for secondary school students: the “Secrets of the Rain Forest” kit (catalog no. 166-0006EDU; Bio-Rad Laboratories s.r.l.) for units 3 and 4 and the “DNA Fingerprinting” kit (catalog no. 166-0007EDU; Bio-Rad Laboratories s.r.l.) for unit 5. The kits allow the students to personally conduct experiments and to experience the basic techniques of DNA technology. They provide laboratory-based activities that stimulate the imagination and enhance the students' understanding of the science behind biotechnology. The students use real-world research products that are completely safe for them and the environment. The kits contain materials for complete student workstations and manuals with exhaustive protocols and complete information about the components so that both teachers and students can understand exactly what each step involves.
In the sixth unit, “What Is the Use of Biotechnology?”, the meaning of the previous exercises is analyzed. The students become familiar with molecular biology and biotechnology software used to analyze experimental results and to simulate biochemical reactions and processes. They learn about real and potential applications of biotechnology, observing how the same techniques they used in the laboratory are used by researchers to produce drugs, diagnostics, etc. In this final phase of the project, the students examine and discuss the social and ethical implications of the use of biotechnology.
The project was designed for both junior and senior secondary school students. Therefore the six units can be carried out differently in the various grades. Teachers can choose a specific theoretical-experimental route within the project and carry out only one or both exercises depending on the type of class involved, the students' age and background, and the desired degree of exploration of the topic.
The interdisciplinary nature of the project requires the participation and collaboration of teachers from diverse fields such as Science, Chemistry, Biology, English, Letters, Philosophy, Law, Economics, and Computer Science. Their different expertise is important for the success of the program.
The Italian Ministry of Education requested that the final product of the SeT program be a web site (www5.indire.it:8080/set/biotech/biotech.htm and www5.bdp.it:8080/set/biotech/home.html) containing exhaustive information and didactic materials so that any visitor to the site could easily repeat the experience.
Seven partners participated in the project (Table III): the University of Siena, a private company (Bio-Rad Laboratories s.r.l.), and five schools in the Siena area. The University of Siena group was the scientific coordinator: they conceived the project, chose the scientific topics and types of experiment, organized and carried out teacher training and tutoring, and helped produce the web site. The “Tito Sarrocchi” school was the leader school and proponent of the project: its role was to organize and coordinate meetings and activities and to provide facilities and technical assistance for the laboratory sessions; some classes of this school also participated in the project. Four other high schools were involved in the project (Table I). After preliminary teacher training, they autonomously carried out the project, organizing the various units, testing the teaching materials, and producing their own materials to evaluate the project's success and to help construct the web site. Bio-Rad Laboratories s.r.l., a leader in the biotechnological field, donated classroom kits and provided technical support during the teacher training.
The project was conducted in 2001. The partners met in February 2001 to establish their roles and to plan the phases of the project. The first activity was the preparation of teaching material for the schools by the University group (mainly as Word documents; Table IV). It contained information about the cell, nucleic acids, proteins, the human genome project, laws regarding laboratory safety, basic instrumentation and techniques, and links with web sites necessary to conduct units 1 and 2. The original English versions of the kit instruction manuals were given to the teachers together with short Italian versions. The philosophy teacher of the “E. S. Piccolomini” school collaborated with the University group to write a document containing essays, information about laws dealing with bioethics, useful web sites, and materials to be used by teachers in the last part of the project to organize and stimulate student discussions of ethical aspects of the use of biotechnologies.
In late Spring 2001, the teachers started to work with students on the preliminary phases of the project. Each school compiled its own theoretical-experimental curriculum, and units 1 and 2 were carried out in the nine junior high and six senior high school classes involved in the project (Table V). In total, 23 teachers and 318 students participated.
In September 2001, a teacher training course was organized by the University group and Bio-Rad to familiarize teachers with the commercial kits. Fifteen teachers performed all activities of both exercises in order to be able to repeat them with the students. The laboratory units described in the kit manuals were used without modification. In October 2001, the students carried out units 3, 4, and 5. Both the teacher training and student laboratory sessions were performed at the “Tito Sarrocchi” school, which provided the laboratories, equipment, and technical support for the experiments.
Unit 6 was conducted in the various schools in November 2001; the analysis of the laboratory exercises differed according to the different class levels. At the same time, all the data and materials produced by the schools were sent to the University group to be selected for the web site.
The goal of the project was to create a product that could be used by a broad range of schools of different type and level. Therefore, the partner schools chosen for the project represented many types of secondary schools. They conducted the project independently and differently according to the type of school and the different age and background of the students. As shown in Table V, all the classes performed the first two theoretical units but carried out the remaining units in different ways. The descriptions of the different experiences by the schools contained in the web site (www5.bdp.it:8080/set/biotech/home.html) provide good indications of the variety of ways the project can be conducted.
The “A. Volta” scientific high school and the “E. S. Piccolomini” classical high school completed the first exercise (“The Secrets of the Rain Forest”). After the experimental sessions, they studied the laws concerning drug experimentation and marketing and engaged in a discussion, coordinated by the philosophy teacher, of the ethical and economic aspects of the whole process.
The “J. Lennon” and “A. di Cambio” junior high schools completed the second exercise (“How Can DNA Analysis Solve Investigative Problems?”). The laboratory sessions were supplemented by other activities aimed at stimulating the students' imagination and creativity: they made DNA models using different materials, produced diaries describing their experiences, and wrote crime stories to describe the scenario of the exercise. This phase involved Science, Letters, and English language teachers.
Students of the “T. Sarrocchi” scientific-technological high school had a more thorough knowledge of Chemistry and Computer Science. Therefore, they completed both exercises, in particular dealing with the analysis of the results and producing tables and graphs using appropriate software.
At the end of the project, the students were asked to write glossaries or to fill in questionnaires so that their level of learning could be evaluated. They also wrote reports giving their impressions and opinions of the program: they all stated that the experience was an extremely positive part of their education. The junior high school students were enthusiastic about the novel opportunity to work in a “true” laboratory and greatly enjoyed writing crime stories based on the simulated murder investigation. The classical high school students, generally not familiar with laboratory sessions, particularly appreciated the opportunity to perform practical classes in a laboratory. Most of them emphasized the opportunity to use the same techniques that researchers use to produce drugs or to make important scientific discoveries. They also valued the personal interaction with the university teachers and personnel of a large company. The final-year students of the senior high school considered the experience a very useful guide for their choice of university courses.
The final product of the project, www5.indire.it:8080/set/biotech/biotech.htm, has been active since May 2002. It is very user-friendly, allowing rapid and simple access: a homepage (www5.bdp.it:8080/set/biotech.home.html) containing an overall description of the project provides links to other pages with information on the history of the project and the partners, as well as to six pages dealing with the six units. These pages contain general descriptions of the units and links to download the course material (listed in Table IV) and the material produced by the schools (listed in Table VI), including background information, the kit manuals and their Italian translation, simplified protocols and procedures, illustrative material, final questionnaires, reports, and comments by the students.
Construction of the web site was fundamental for the wide diffusion of the project and for the realization of its main objective: to provide every school with the information and material necessary to repeat the experience.
The project was presented at the 46th National Meeting of the Italian Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (Siena, September 26–29, 2001)  and the meeting “Scientific Education in Tuscan Schools” (Florence, December 7, 2001) , which helped to promote it within the Italian educational system. On both occasions, the project aroused great interest and positive judgments.
The “Biotech a Scuola” project provides an effective set of tools to introduce junior and senior high school students to biotechnology. It represents a model of useful cooperation among various educational sectors with the common goal of teaching students some aspects of modern biotechnology; it also provides the opportunity to raise questions about ethical aspects of biotechnologies and helps the teachers to coordinate student discussions.
Five senior and junior secondary schools participated in the project; 23 teachers and 318 students from 15 classes were involved. The collaboration between schools and university worked very well, as did the networking among schools. The teachers expressed great satisfaction at the end of the project because they felt their professionalism had increased and they saw the very positive student reactions. The interdisciplinary nature of the project required the participation and collaboration of teachers from diverse fields, and they all played an important role in the project.
The design of the project, with six units and the possibility to carry them out in different ways, made it suitable for different types and levels of schools. In addition, the use of commercial kits for the laboratory sessions made the teachers' job easier and, above all, contained materials completely safe for the students and the environment.
The final product of the project, the web site, is certainly in tune with current classroom emphases. It contains a description of the project, teacher information, course material, and reports from the schools. Therefore, it is the ideal way to allow other schools to easily repeat the experience.
|Istituto Tecnico Industriale Statale (I.T.I.S.)—Liceo Scientifico Tecnologico (L.S.T.) “T. Sarrocchi” (Siena)||Technical high school (I.T.I.S.) and scientific-technological high school (L.S.T.)|
|Liceo Statale “A. Volta”||Scientific high school|
|Colle Val d'Elsa (Siena)|
|Liceo Ginnasio Statale “E. S. Piccolomini” (Siena)||Classical high school|
|Istituto Comprensivo “J. Lennon”—Scuola Media Sinalunga (Siena)||Junior high school|
|Scuola Media Statale “A. di Cambio”||Junior high school|
|Colle Val d'Elsa (Siena)|
|1||What Is the Central Dogma of Biology?||Learning basic concepts necessary to understand the theoretical and experimental contents of units 3, 4, and 5.|
|2||What Do You Need to Do Biotechnology in the Laboratory?||Becoming familiar with the basic instruments and the rules of behavior and safety of a biochemistry and molecular biology laboratory.|
|3||“The Secrets of the Rain Forest”—Use of biotechnologies to identify and purify putative therapeutically active proteins. Part I||Learning the basic concepts of DNA cloning and recombinant DNA technique. Purification of a presumed therapeutically active recombinant protein.|
|4||“The Secrets of the Rain Forest”—Use of biotechnologies to identify and purify putative therapeutically active proteins. Part II||Learning the laws concerning drug experimentation and marketing; simulating the process of putting the therapeutically active protein on the market.|
|5||“How Can DNA Analysis Solve Investigative Problems?”—Use of biotechnologies in forensic medicine and diagnostics.||Learning the basic concepts of DNA fingerprinting; simulating a murder investigation and the identification of the killer using the DNA fingerprinting technique.|
|6||What Is the Use of Biotechnology?||Becoming familiar with molecular biology and biotechnology software. Learning about real and potential applications of biotechnology. Discussing the social and ethical implications of the use of biotechnologies.|
|Department of Molecular Biology, University of Siena||Scientific coordination; teacher training and tutoring; selection and preparation of teaching material; production of the final product.|
|“T. Sarrocchi” school||Organization and coordination of meetings and activities; providing laboratories, equipment, and technical assistance for the exercises; development of the project with students, testing of teaching material.|
|“A. Volta” school||Development of the project with students, testing of teaching material.|
|“E. S. Piccolomini” school|
|“J. Lennon” school|
|“A. di Cambio” school|
|Bio-Rad Laboratories s.r.l.||Providing classroom kits and technical support during the teacher training.|
|Unit||Title of the document||Source|
|1||The Cell||University group|
|From DNA to Protein|
|The Human Genome Project|
|Some useful web sites|
|2||Safety in the laboratory||University group|
|Safety equipment in the laboratory|
|The September 19th 1994 Law (D.LGS.626/94)|
|Basic laboratory equipment|
|The laboratory notebook|
|Some useful web sites|
|3||Secrets of the Rain Forest kit Instruction Manual—original English version||BioRad|
|Secrets of the Rain Forest kit Instruction Manual—short Italian version||University Group|
|4||The different phases of the clinical trial of a drug Italian laws concerning clinical experimentation||University group|
|5||DNA Fingerprinting kit Instruction Manual—original English version||BioRad|
|DNA Fingerprinting kit Instruction Manual—short Italian version||University Group|
|6||Materials for a reflection on bioethics||The “E. S. Piccolomini” philosophy teacher|
|School||Classes||Students||Teachers||Educational sectors||Project units|
|“T. Sarrocchi” school||IV A-L.S.T.||20||7||Chemistry||1–6|
|“A. Volta” school||II C||10||2||Biology||1–4, 6|
|“E. S. Piccolomini” school||II Liceo B||17||2||Science||1–4, 6|
|“J. Lennon” school||III A||15||4||Science||1, 2, 5, 6|
|“A. di Cambio” school||II H||23||8||Science||1, 2, 5, 6|
|Unit||Title of the document||Source|
|3||Schools personal curricula:|
|“T. Sarrocchi”—Siena||“T. Sarrocchi,”|
|“A. Volta”—Colle Val D'Elsa||“A. Volta,”|
|“E. S. Piccolomini”—Siena||“E. S. Piccolomini”|
|4||Student reports on the discussion of ethical aspects of clinical experimentation on drugs:||“A. Volta” and|
|Student comments||“E. S. Piccolomini” students|
|5||Schools personal curricula:|
|“J. Lennon”—Sinalunga||“J. Lennon”|
|“A. di Cambio—Colle Val d'Elsa||“A. di Cambio”|
|“T. Sarrocchi”—Siena||“T. Sarrocchi”|
|Notes on electrophoretic techniques (with final glossary)||“J. Lennon” students|
|The genetic code (with final glossary)||“J. Lennon” students|
|Lab Protocol for instructors||“J. Lennon” teachers|
|Lab Protocol for students||“J. Lennon” students|
|“Free on board”||“J. Lennon” students|
|Final Report||“J. Lennon” students|
|Concluding remarks||“A. di Cambio” students|
|“Il mistero di Villa Pace”||“J. Lennon” students|
|“31 Settembre”||“A. di Cambio” students|
|“Mistero in pista”||“A. di Cambio” students|
|“Omicidio al giornale”||“A. di Cambio” students|
|6||The “T. Sarrocchi” experience (with final questionnaire)||“T. Sarrocchi” students|
We thank the teachers and students for their enthusiastic support and Bio-Rad Laboratories s.r.l. for providing materials and technical support.
- 1“SeT … Scienza e Tecnologia. Il Progetto Speciale per l'educazione scientifica e Tecnologica. Ministero dell'Istruzione, dell'Università e della Ricerca,” www.bdp.it/set/.
- 22001) “Biotech a Scuola”: A government project for scientific and technological education in secondary school. Communication at the 46th National Meeting of the Italian Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Joint Symposia with the French Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Educational Section, Siena, September 26–29, 2001. It. Biochem. Soc. Transact. 17, 2.02, 58., , , , , , , (
- 32001) “Biotech a Scuola.” Communication at the meeting “L'educazione Scientifica nelle Scuole della Regione Toscana,” organized by Regione Toscana, Firenze, December 7, 2001., , , , (