Crucial Knowledge?

March 21, 2016
Kevin Gant

Kevin Gant

At what age should people know about antibiotic resistance?

This is the question that has occurred to me as a result of teaching about genetic engineering, and testing for plasmid uptake in a Freshman Biology course.  As a quick aside – don’t worry if you, gentle reader, have no idea what plasmid uptake is.  But to get my students to understand about it, they needed to know first that antibiotics kill bacteria.  On a hunch, I asked all my classes the other day:  “What do antibiotics do?”  Any guesses as to how many kids per class knew the answer?

Less than 1 kid per class.

I was surprised, because a huge part of every doctor visit I’ve been to in the last 10-20 years, if it involved me coughing, and feeling like hell, is the conversation about whether I had a viral or bacterial infection, and hell no they won’t give me antibiotics if my symptomology was consistent with a virus.   This experience I, of course,  brought up with the students (without the cursing, though it took some restraint) to help them understand what antibiotics do, and what they don’t do.

Upon reflection, I remembered that they are 14 years old, and they haven’t been to the doctor as much, so it occurred to me that this could be exactly the right time to help them understand the idea of antibiotic resistance, and the inadvertent genetic selection for the so-called “superbugs” as a result of over-prescribing antibiotics.   My students are now growing into a cognition that is rather adult-like, and logic works well with that level of cognition, and it requires some base-level knowledge, about cells, and evolutionary mechanisms.

And address it, I shall, but sort of by accident, and not because the state standards tell me to.  Here are the standards that might call for something like the idea of antibiotic resistance:

13. Explains how natural selection favors individuals who are better able to survive, reproduce, and leave offspring (NM – II.II.II.12)
14. Analyzes how evolution by natural selection and other mechanisms explains many phenomena including the fossil record of ancient life forms and similarities (both physical and molecular) among different species (NM – II.II.II.13).
24. Knows that specialized structures inside cells in most organisms carry out different functions, including (NM – II.II.III.2):
  • parts of a cell and their functions (e.g., nucleus, chromosomes, plasma,
  • and mitochondria),
  • storage of genetic material in DNA,
  • similarities and differences between plant and animal cells, and
  • prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells.

These standards deal with the underpinnings that allow someone to understand about the problems of over-prescription, but still, it seems to me that an educated citizen should know the difference between viral and antibiotic pathogens, so that when they get sick, they work WITH the doctors to ensure the right course of treatment.

So I can’t help but wonder: should there be additional standards for science courses that address the intersection between the underlying biology (or Chem or Physics or whatever) and its use in the world?  If the application is contingent upon specific technology, which will certainly change soon, then maybe not.  I don’t suggest any replacement of the underpinnings – I am saying that there are some ideas and applications that every citizen ought to know.  Their well-being, and agency in the world might depend upon it.

This instance makes me think of a couple of other examples, one of which isn’t even science:

Radioactivity:  Most people don’t understand that something cannot become radioactive if it is exposed to radiation.  This has real ramifications on irradiated food.

The Electoral College: I took government in high school, but I only really learned of the importance of the Electoral College during the Bush/Gore presidential election of 2000. Seems like it would be handy for someone know about that BEFORE they turn 18, right?

The Global Surface Temperature Record: A certain Senator from Texas is espousing that global surface temperatures have not risen since 1998, using satellite data for evidence.  Alas, this data doesn’t really tell us accurately about the surface – it measures the temp of the “lower troposphere”, which includes a layer of air six miles thick.   People ought to know that a much more accurate record (that does show appreciable warming) comes from ground-based thermometers. You know, where the people live.

So I am curious: if you are an educator, what are the obvious holes in your current set of standards that might be at the application, rather than theory, level?  And even if you aren’t an educator, what should we ensure our students leave high school knowing that we are not yet teaching, or we are teaching spottily?

In asking this, I realize that I am opening the door to idiosyncrasies of individuals – there will be some of us who have our pet idea that not everyone else loves, but I suspect that there are some topics and ideas that a lot of us can agree with. And honestly, if you’d like to proffer your idiosyncratic topic, be my guest – I’m still curious.

You can read more from Kevin on his blog Intrepid Ed.