I should know better.
I started a project without running it by colleagues. It was such a good idea, I just KNEW the students would totally get into it. I had previous experience with Senior students who had utterly enveloped themselves in the subject: Genetically Modified Foods. This was a great chance to hit the ideas of how proteins are created in cells.
So here was the idea: I discovered that in 2013, a Senator to the NM Legislature introduced a bill requiring the labeling of genetically engineered food sold in New Mexico, similar to legislation that has passed in Vermont and Maine. It did not pass. Recently, this has been a contentious issue in the US Congress, with legislation introduced in the House trying to prevent states from passing labeling laws.
As I researched, I grew more and more excited. Look at all the issues coming up on both sides! Look how some people are using Biology (rogue proteins, yo) to make their case! This will help the students understand protein synthesis deeply so that they could describe the biology around GMOs! It will help them take a stand (on either side of the issue), and have some agency in the world.
Thus emerged the task:
Write a letter to a NM legislator or a US Congressperson, stating your position regarding the labeling of GM foods, encouraging them to either support or block specific legislation. Your letter should demonstrate your understanding of the science behind genetically engineered food, and of the central dogma of molecular biology.
The project rollout plan was great. “Bring some snack food for Monday. Your choice. Yes, soda is ok. Yes, Chile Cheese Fritos are ok, and in fact, PLEASE bring Chile Cheese Fritos. Yes, you can bring apples.” I kept the subject a bit secret – they just knew that a new project was coming down the pike, and it was staring with a party.
Bring the snack food, they did. We feasted on all sorts of genetically engineered corn snacks & corn-syrup-laden drinks and cookies. While we munched, I shared with them some facts about GMOs, the legislation that has surrounded them, then BAM: “You are eating genetically modified food.”
Also: <blank stares>
If ever there was a nonplussed group of students, it was them. Did I mention that these were freshmen? Turns out, I have discovered, that freshmen don’t care about the same stuff that seniors do. Maybe it is the lack of background knowledge. (Or maybe it WAS their knowledge? GMO food hasn’t been shown to be harmful, as it turns out) Maybe it is their youthful feeling of immortality. Whatever the case, pointing out the fact that the food they were eating wasn’t even labeled as GMOs did little to move them. Sharing with them the project task proved to be an exercise in “Meh”. Or so it appeared on their faces.
IN MY DEFENSE – I had adopted this 9th grade biology class that very week: the previous teacher had accepted a job elsewhere, and as the school coach who happened to be certified to teach science, I was the logical fill-in. So in a Friday-to-Sunday period, I designed this project, and went into the class knowing some of the students, but not knowing them as a group.
So, with the tepid-at-best project roll out, I was back to the drawing board that night. What can save this? Do I need to start over? The next morning, I had a conversation with a colleague who had taught 9th grade bio before (thank you, @jennbeck24) and she was not surprised in the least at their reaction. We spitballed, and came up with some alternatives.
On day two, I spoke with the class: “Give me a signal: Thumbs up if you are into this project idea, thumbs sideways if you are neutral, and thumbs down if you don’t like it.”
Mostly thumbs sideways. Some thumbs down. Only a couple thumbs up.
“Ok – let’s consider options – here they are.”
1) Write a letter to a NM legislator or a US Congressperson, stating your position regarding the labeling of GM foods, encouraging them to either support or block specific legislation.
2) Write a letter to or article for nex+Gen News, explaining why students should or should not be afraid of GMO foods
3) Write to APS, taking a position on whether it should or should not serve GMO food in cafeterias, and from vending machines
4) Your own option (must include writing) that demonstrates your understanding of the science behind genetically engineered food and protein synthesis, and has some use outside this classroom.
We discussed the options, and especially the 4th. I had each student announce which one they preferred. Several had some really interesting ideas for option 4, especially those who had been not very interested in the project the previous day. Now a new poll – “What do you think of the project now?”
Mostly thumbs up, a few sideways. I’ll take it.
- If you have time (I didn’t), run critical friends on your project idea. Make sure the people with whom you run critical friends know something about the age group for the project.
- Pay attention to the kids’ response to the project. Had I just barreled ahead, this project could have been an awful slog. Right now, they are into it. The corollary here is that projects can and should be adjusted mid-stream, if necessary.
- Choice. Choice. Choice. (I know this. I know this pretty well. Egad.)
Now that I am at the beginning of a project, I need to be planning the next project. My intention is to gather a group of students to help design the next project, in a similar way to how I did with seniors in the past. It ought to be interesting, and I can’t help but wonder if it will be more like a focus group than like a brainstorming session, but I definitely want to make sure that I have students involved before project roll-out.
You can read more from Kevin Gant on his blog, Intrepid Ed.