Thursday, May 30, 2013

My Visit to High School Biology Classes

Last Monday I went back to my old high school (Nepean High School in Ottawa, Canada) to visit with students in various biology classes. My host was Susanne Gerards who teaches grade 11 biology and grade 12 biology. She's also the lead author on the biology textbook [Biology 12] that the students use in the grade 12 courses.

I was "guest lecturer" in two grade 12 biology classes and one grade 11 biology class. The grade 12 students had just finished the sections on biochemistry and molecular genetics (information flow) so they were up on most things that I blog about. I was surprised at the amount of information they had just leaned—it's comparable to what we teach in our introductory biochemistry course except that there's less emphasis on structures and nothing on enzyme kinetics.

The students were wonderful. Many of them are going to take science courses in university. (They all had their university acceptances.) Only a few of them are interested in medicine.1

The grade 11 students had finished their section on evolution. Most of them thought that evolution was driven by changes in the environment but they had at least been exposed to random genetic drift. It took a little prompting to that get that out of them. (I think Susanne was a bit embarrassed!). My impression was that the students understood quite a bit about evolution and this was a pleasant surprise.

One of the classes had just finished a discussion about junk DNA when a student raised it in class. He claimed that recent evidence proved that most of our genome has a function. I think the students were still a bit confused about genomes but at least they talked about it. (We didn't talk about it much when I was there.)

I'm pretty sure that the most important thing the students learned was that you actually get paid to be a graduate student! They were also surprised about the relatively high salaries that professors earn when they're hired. I'm hoping that some of them will pursue a career in science.

Susanne Gerards and I had an excellent lunch in Westboro where the restaurants and shops are quite a bit more upscale than they were in the 1960s when I lived there. We also had a lot of fun talking about science after class. With teachers like that I'm confident that Ontario high school students are getting a good science education.

1. Hardly any of them were going to the University of Toronto in spite of the fact that it's the best university in Canada. I'm not sure why they were avoiding it. The most popular universities were Queen's, McGill, and Waterloo.