Monday, January 9, 2012

STEM or HELP? Which Would You Have Chosen as a Sophomore?

In early December, Yale Student Science Diplomat's Outreach Coordinator, Keerthi Shetty, escorted fellow grad students Liz Turner, Patrick McMillen, and me to James Hillhouse High School in New Haven. We were preparing to give a Science in the News talk on GMOs to about 30 sophomore students. Before any students had arrived in the classroom, anatomy teacher Ms. Mara Dunleavy informed us that these sophomores are poised on the brink of having to choose between STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and HELP (humanities, education, law, and public service). She winked at us, encouraging us to push them towards STEM.

Keerthi, Patrick, Liz and I exchanged concerned glances. We were all thinking the same thing: as 15 or 16-year-old high school students, would we have chosen STEM? Back in my sophomore year, English, History, and German were clearly my better subjects, edging out Chemistry and Algebra not only in test scores, but in preference. I mean, who'd want to calculate molarities when you could instead read a novel The fact that these kids have to choose, and choose so early, is not unique to Hillhouse High, or even uncommon. Many high schools around the world use this technique to better prepare students for college and to put them in classes that they'd prefer, ostensibly to keep them interested in what they're learning. But what if their interests change? What if I had chosen HELP back then in high school but then changed my mind later? Would I have stayed away from science altogether, believing it to be not for me, that I was too far behind to catch up?

These thoughts were buzzing in our minds when, seemingly all of the sudden, the classroom filled up with rambunctious students sizing us up, sizing up Science, not as a method but as a life choice.

Our talks went really well (Liz being completely ill and in no shape to give a talk notwithstanding). And the students asked really great questions. We got a few old GMO standards like, "If you put a gene in a plant to make it grow bigger, why won't it make us grow bigger when we eat it?" (the answer being that plant growth hormones are very different from animal ones, and people don't even actually use plant hormone genes in making GMOs anyway). But we also got questions that we hadn't heard before, ones we were talking about in the car on the way back to Yale, like, "What happens if a bee flies into a soy or wheat flower and then flies over to a weed?"

Soy and wheat are usually self-fertilizing plants, and their small flowers aren't very attractive to bees. This is fortunate if you don't want your introduced gene to move into nearby weeds, the plants related to soy or wheat at the edges of your fields. Most of the time, this doesn't happen: the gene stays in the crop because the pollen doesn't even move outside of its own flower. But as we pointed out in our presentation, self-fertilization of crops doesn't ever 100% prevent gene flow. Sure, the gene a human puts into a plant is no more likely to get into a weed than any other gene, but that doesn't mean it's impossible. A bee could absolutely stop at a soy or wheat flower by mistake and then land on a weed flower and fertilize it with the GM pollen. Is it likely that a bee would do that? No. Is it likely that the crop and the compatible weed would be flowering at the same time? Probably not. Is it even likely that the weed's seed with the new gene would survive? Well maybe. But the point is that it's possible.  This student had come up with a perfectly reasonable explanation for GM gene flow. Kudos to her scientific thinking! But will she choose STEM? And if she doesn't, does that rule out a career in science for her for ever?

-Elizabeth Winograd-Cort
6th year MCDB PhD candidate
President of Yale Student Science Diplomats

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