I went to a New York classroom to see how kids were being prepared for the future of gene editing.
Brinley, Despina, and Powel streak bacteria onto plates of agar. Image: Michael Fairchild
I walked into Camp East Woods in Oyster Bay, Long Island, about twenty minutes before class started. Dozens of kids, from four years old to sophomores in high school, were trying to figure out where their friends were, checking different rooms to see who had arrived. It smelled like sunscreen and sweat.
I was there for the Serious Science program, where kids of all ages get to explore everything from biochemistry to engineering. The syllabus included CRISPR, the powerful gene editing technology that allows you to cut out and change specific sections of DNA. Researchers are using it to battle things like HIV, blindness, and malaria, just to name a few.
CRISPR is all the rage in the scientific community, and I was curious how Jane Powel, who leads the program, planned to teach this crucial subject to young kids. When new science makes its way into mainstream conversations, especially powerful science like CRISPR, those discussions can suffer when there's a significant gap in knowledge between researchers and the public. Without everyone at the table, conversations can become tainted with confusion, fear, and impulsive decisions. And that education has to start pretty early.
At the classroom that day, I expected such a complicated experiment and nuanced topic would require a very structured day, a really clear plan, and lots of guidance. I was wrong.
Once class started, Powel quickly dove into a discussion of CRISPR, introducing it with a frequently used metaphor that compares it to the process of deleting and replacing a mistake that you've typed on the computer. There were a couple dozen or so kids in the room, all listening closely, and they jumped to answer any questions Powel posed to them.
While they named different things that you might want to cut from a genome—like genes that lead to higher risks of cancer or those that cause muscular dystrophy—Powel asked the students if there were any potential issues with CRISPR that scientists might want to consider alongside all of the good that might come of it. A nine-year-old named Evan immediately raised his hand to point out that it's possible other parts of DNA could be damaged aside from the region you're trying to fix.
"Sometimes it sounds like a great idea to cut and paste and edit DNA, and other times it sounds like it might have a bad consequence that we weren't even thinking of," Powel agreed.
After the discussion, the classroom broke into groups and the students went off to do their activities. Some wanted to fly drones, helicopters, hovercrafts, and remote control airplanes. Others were going to drive an electric car that a student's uncle had built and lent to the camp. Another group went to pick flowers, dissect them, and look at their parts under a microscope.
I sat down with the group getting ready to perform the CRISPR experiment, which would involve them transforming a harmless bacteria's DNA to make it resistant to an antibiotic. Five girls were at the table. There was Despina, a soft-spoken sophomore in high school who got interested in genetics from a biology class in school. And three 11-year-olds—Avery, Cristabella, and Darshini. Nine-year-old Brinley was the youngest of the group.
In the day's experiment, the campers would grow cultures of E. coli, bacteria that are usually susceptible to the antibiotic Streptomycin. And the following day, they would take that fresh bacteria and treat it with chemicals that would allow the CRISPR/Cas9 complex to enter the bacterial cells, and then cut out and replace the part of the E. coli DNA that binds to Streptomycin. If successful, the E.coli should then be able to grow on plates treated with the antibiotic instead of being killed, something it normally can't do.
As the students got into the nitty gritty of the day's work, Powel broached the ethics conversation again. "Everybody's excited about this, but people are worried about it too," she said, "Because just as Evan said, sometimes you can think you're doing a good thing and you're really not. Or there are some people who want to do bad things."
Some of the concerns with CRISPR tap into questions surrounding consent, reach, and unintended effects. For example, knocking malaria out of an entire mosquito population sounds like a net positive, but could also make those insects more susceptible to carrying other disease. Additionally, making changes to DNA with CRISPR impacts not only the organism or person, but its progeny as well.
That also brings up the issue of consent. Sure, someone may not have any issues with having their own disease-causing genes snipped out while they were in the womb, but going beyond that and making changes that aren't survival-related, what about the choices of the individual and their descendants?
"Now you have this very powerful tool, so that's why it's so important that you guys learn about this and use it for good," Powel said. "And know what's going on when you hear news and be able to think critically."
Educators across the country are starting to incorporate CRISPR, and these lessons in genetic literacy, into their teachings. Michael Hirsch, who teaches science to 6th to 8th graders at the Acera School in Massachusetts, introduced CRISPR into his curriculum this past year. He also brought up its ethical aspects with his students.
"No one in the class seemed to have any objections to removing potentially hazardous and dangerous diseases from the genome," he said, "But it ran the gamut from, we shouldn't decide [whether parents will conceive a] boy or girl, to we can't decide [a baby's] hair color. Then again, some were like, well, I do want my baby to be born with a certain hair color so…"
It seems to help that both Hirsch and Powel have unconventional teaching methods. "I've always wanted to cater my classroom science experience, and give students the same sort of struggles and highs and lows in doing research as I experienced in the lab," says Hirsch, who studied molecular biology in college and worked in the biotech industry before becoming a teacher.
When he teaches, he sets students up as they would be if they were scientists in a lab. "There's some sort of problem and there has to be either mystery in how you get to the solution or mystery in the starting materials and what you end up with. It can't all be cookbook," he says, "Give them as little information as possible to keep them going."
Back on Long Island, the CRISPR group was joined by two boys discussing how getting negatively charged DNA through the bacteria's negatively charged cell wall is a problem they would have to surmount in order to transform their bacteria's DNA. One of the boys, John Michael, jumped up and grabbed two magnets from a drawer to give a visual.
As they talked about what helps solve this particular problem—a buffer with three chemicals that will neutralize the negative DNA charge and make the bacteria's cell wall permeable—they began setting up their bacterial cultures and then expertly streaked their sample across a number of plates they'd put together earlier in the day. Their culture would have to sit overnight before they could do the next steps.
Throughout the day, some students showed hesitation when working through some of the steps, always short-lived. They mixed and poured agar, labeled plates, and pipetted reagents with very little help from Powel.
Teaching CRISPR to kids is about bringing science to the public and bringing the public into discussions about how to implement it. It's hard to have meaningful conversations about CRISPR or the ethics of using it if people don't understand what it is. So, the only way to implement safeguards or boundaries that aren't driven by misunderstanding or fear is to make CRISPR accessible to everyone—scientists, non-scientists, even kids.
At the very beginning of class, one student summed up something Powel has been instilling in her students all summer and what scientific understanding and education is so often about, "It's about seeing things in a new way."
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