What started as a simple show and tell with heirloom tomatoes by Wake Forest University biology professors and students to teach about genetic diversity has grown into an interactive presentation that has reached thousands of public school students.
Wake Forest biology professors Gloria Muday and Carole Gibson and their students use mutant tomatoes grown in the campus garden to teach fundamental biology concepts to local high school students. "Teaching with Tomatoes" is funded by the American Society of Plant Biology Education Foundation and has evolved over the years.
College students lead high school students through a problem-based learning exercise highlighting a purple fruit mutant to help them understand genetic inheritance and how that is part of both traditional plant breeding and construction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and food in a changing climate.
Students learn about dominant and recessive genes and the genetic influence on the characteristics we can see and the ones we cannot. They use Punnett squares to predict gene combinations, discuss the science behind GMO foods, and even extract the DNA from red and purple mutant fruits.
"The material we teach is integral to high school biology curriculum; they just might not have gotten there yet. The goal is to provide memorable examples, so that when the students reach their genetic unit, they can call on this experience to build a stronger understanding of these critical course concepts," explained Muday.
Another goal is to help high schools students understand what GMO foods are, the potential of this technology to address central challenges in agriculture that are accentuated with global climate change, and the current evidence for the safety of this technology.
"The local students aren't the only ones who benefit from this experience," Muday said. "It's also a way for very talented Wake Forest students to learn through teaching these concepts to younger students and it helps cement the concepts for them as well."
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