Into the heart of the science headlines with summer term course Genetics 133

Precision medicine, genetic testing, antibiotic resistance, GMOs, cloning. Open almost any newspaper or click on any online news site, and you’re likely to see headlines about many of these scientific topics. Woven through these stories is a common thread — genetics.

But how much do readers really know about genetics? And how much does our knowledge — or lack of it — affect our opinions about these scientific issues and the stories that cover them? These are the questions students get to answer in a Summer Term course called Genetics 133 Genetics in the News.

Screenshot of a Genetics 133 lecture focused on cloning. Photo courtesy of Katie Vermillion Kalmon.

“Genetics is at the heart of many issues facing society,” says course instructor Katie Vermillion Kalmon, who is director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Genetics. “In Genetics 133, we gain a deeper understanding of the science behind the headlines so that the students can make informed decisions and help educate those around them.”

It’s a vital goal for students who run into genetics in so many corners of their lives, from the news to dinnertime discussions to ancestry testing kits. And in addition to the science, Vermillion Kalmon introduces the underlying ethics of these issues, an aspect that has been missing from many science classes.

“We may be able to cure diseases, but should we? What if the genetics changes can be passed on to future generations? Who has access to the treatment?” says Vermillion Kalmon, who received the 2021 Spitzer Excellence in Teaching Award. “Social and ethical issues surround every topic, and the students need to think about these questions.”

For many students, being able to take both the genetic information and the bioethics questions to other parts of their lives is one of the highlights of the class. “I learned a lot of material and was able to talk to my family, coworkers, and friends about these types of topics. Everyone is interested,” says Brenen Skalitzky, a first-year genetics and genomics student who took the course in summer 2021.

Genetics 133 is offered year-round but in different formats — in-person during the semester and virtually over the summer. Vermillion Kalmon was able to fine-tune her online class, even before the pandemic hit, through help from Teach Online@UW (a campus learning community of instructors and instructional designers) and a UW–Madison Continuing Studies grant.

Through the grant, an instructional designer showed her how to take her course from the classroom to the computer.

“We knew as a department that online options were something we wanted to provide to students, so when Continuing Studies offered grants, we applied,” says Vermillion Kalmon. “The grant was greatly timed since I moved my course online prior to coronavirus. When the pandemic came, it was ready to go, and that allowed me to help train other faculty in my department to get ready for online teaching.

The summer online course is broken up into eight modules, each including lectures, news articles, group learning activities conducted via Zoom, and exams. The lectures and reading can be done on each student’s schedule, giving them flexibility during the summer when they may be working or studying in different time zones. And it’s a structure that has received universally positive feedback.

“The class was taught incredibly well,” says Alyssa Bhoopat, a first-year student who took the course in summer 2021. “While there definitely was a lot of information to cover and take in, lecture videos were engaging, and the content was very interesting.”

Skalitzky agreed, adding, “I had lots of fun with the weekly team assignments. Hearing other students’ opinions about more controversial issues is eye-opening. I also wanted to be able to understand scientific journals and judge the reliability of news stories. Genetics 133 helped me with these skills, and the media-literacy component was very important to me.”

The course is popular with non-genetics majors, Vermillion Kalmon says, but she’s seeing more genetics majors enroll, especially through early-start programs. This includes both Bhoopat, a CALS QuickStart student, and Skalitzky, a participant in the Wisconsin Experience Summer Launch Program.

For Bhoopat, a genetics and genomics major, the advantages of taking the course early went beyond the class content. “Being able to connect with faculty before starting the fall semester was invaluable,” she explains. “Dr. Vermillion Kalmon answered so many questions, even about topics outside the class, and she helped ease my nerves as the year started.”

Vermillion Kalmon is happy to see more early-start students in her summer course. And although Genetics 133 isn’t part of the curriculum for genetics and genomics majors, she would like to find more ways for those students to fit the class into their schedules and use it as a basis for their science courses to come. “Students really learn a lot of genetics, and how much genetics relates to every aspect of our lives becomes very evident to them early on in the course,” explains Vermillion Kalmon. “It gives them an overview of the topics they’re going to see throughout their classes.”