Genetics Web Sites Awarded the First Science Prize for Online Resources in Education

In an age when genetics and genomics research is progressing so fast that not even new teachers are up to date, two Web sites created at the University of Utah’s Genetic Science Learning Center are providing an excellent source of new material while educating a hugely diverse audience of users.

Because of their value as educational tools, Learn.Genetics and Teach.Genetics are being honored with the Science Prize for Online Resources in Education.

“The materials found on these Web sites are designed for teachers, students, and the general public, and are filled with accurate and unbiased information about genetics and health,” says Melissa McCartney, an editorial fellow at Science .  “What sets them apart is that they do not shy away from exploring cutting-edge research and difficult topics such as epigenetics, neural pathways of drug addiction and biotechnology.”

The Science Prize for Online Resources in Education was designed to recognize the worthiest online materials available to science educators. Science will publish an article by each recipient of the award explaining his or her winning project. The article on the Learn.Genetics and Teach.Genetics Web sites appears in the 29 January issue of Science .

“We’re trying to advance science education by providing much-needed recognition to innovators in the field whose efforts promise significant benefits for students and for science literacy in general,” says Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science. “The publication in Science of an article about each Web site will help guide educators around the globe to valuable free resources that might otherwise be missed.”

Louisa Stark, the director of the Genetic Science Learning Center at the University of Utah, developed the Web sites with colleague and online expert Kevin Pompei. Calling herself “a translator of science,” Stark says the purpose of the sites is to make challenging but important topics accessible at all levels.

“Learn.Genetics is bringing science to people in a way that they can understand,” she says.

Stark, who lives in Salt Lake City, became interested in science at a young age, during long walks across the prairie with her mother near the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota. Her mother’s fascination with nature led them to collect plant and animal specimens to study at home. Because Stark’s father was a missionary pastor, the family lived on the reservation. There, and in other places the family moved for her father’s work, Stark experienced educational disparities within this country.

Having seen such disparities close up, Stark joined a program as a graduate student that brought hands-on science to inner-city classrooms in Denver. She was at the time earning her doctorate in evolutionary genetics, but not long into the school’s project, Stark got hooked on becoming an educator.

“I really found that I had a passion for working with students and teachers,” she says.

In 1999, Stark joined the University of Utah’s Genetic Science Learning Center. Even then, the center had one of the very first science education Web sites. Now, with Learn.Genetics and its companion site for teachers, Teach.Genetics, the center possesses the most widely disseminated genetics education Web sites in the world, according to the developers’ own research.

Recently, Learn.Genetics has achieved runaway online popularity. In late October 2009, an animated presentation called “Cell Size and Scale” hit the Internet big-time when link-sharing Web sites started to propagate it. At one point, the page was getting 270 hits per second for seven hours straight, making it the eighth most popular page on the Internet. Some 20,000 Web sites linked to it, including ones associated with movie critic Roger Ebert, Adam Savage of the television program MythBusters, and Car Enthusiast magazine.

The sites received 8 million visits from users in 189 countries in 2009, with 21 million page views. Page views are projected to hit 32 million this year.

Social networks, Stark says, are “actually facilitating the spread of scientific information to people who wouldn’t generally see it. I really like knowing that the work I lead is reaching millions of people around the world.”

To develop the content of the Web sites, master teachers from a range of settings— inner city to rural—have the unique experience of meeting with scientists to discuss research and concepts that emerge for inclusion in the curriculum. Because research shows that the most learning occurs when lessons include auditory, visual, and kinesthetic formats, the Web site team strives to maximize animated and interactive content.

Stark says she and her team have responded to users’ questions by including additional reference materials. In addition to asking questions, users have expanded some of the concepts on their own. For example, visitors to the site played with the differences in scale between a coffee bean and a cell, extrapolating the difference to include other common objects. To Stark, this kind of involvement was heartening, particularly as Americans grapple with the ramifications and ethical issues related to genetics and genomics research. Stem cell research is one such area that has been caught up in controversy.

“Perhaps the only guaranteed fact we know about stem cell research is that the controversy surrounding it won’t be going away anytime soon,” says McCartney at Science . “The same can be said for advances in personalized medicine, genetic testing, and the genetic modification of organisms.  Because of this, it is becoming imperative that the general public become genomics-literate in order to be prepared to make informed decisions.”

With their broad appeal, the Learn.Genetics and Teach.Genetics Web sites are known to many educators—and even to Twitterers. There’s one group in particular, however, that Stark hopes to reach by having won the Science Prize for Online Resources in Education.

She explained: “We hope that this award will bring our work to the attention of Science magazine’s main audience: scientists.”

Links

Visit the University of Utah’s Learn.Genetics and Teach.Genetics Web sites, winners of the Science Prize for Online Resources in Education.

Read a Science editorial on the journal’s new prize competition by Editor in Chief Bruce Alberts. [Free with registration.]

Learn more about the Science Prize for Online Resources in Education.