It’s not often that one finishes a professional learning course fully satisfied, with the awareness of having spent one’s time well. Today that happened. The course “The new frontiers of biotechnology: What are the ethical dilemmas?” concluded. In the event’s closing, Headmaster P.P Eramo of the Liceo Romagnosi and Anna Pascucci, director of ABE Italy, stated that they hoped that this would be the first of an annual event. To be honest, though, I was sure this professional learning event would be worthwhile because Mariangela Fontichiari, one of the organizers of the event, is part of the Amgen Biotech Experience (ABE) Italy team, a program in which I have been participating for several years and which aims to renew scientific teaching by bringing modern biotechnology into schools through laboratory teaching.
ABE, supported in Italy by the National Association of Teachers of Natural Sciences, is an international program that, with over 30 years of experience and a large network of schools around the world, remains innovative and pioneering in the scientific training of teachers and students. And that’s not all! This professional learning incorporated new elements, addressing not only teachers of science but also of philosophy, religion, art, and Italian. But why? You don't have to be a science enthusiast to understand the exceptionality of this historical period characterized by the rapid development of research in the field of life sciences and molecular biology, with inevitable repercussions on everyday real life, giving a glimpse of scenarios that until recently were only “science fiction”.
What has changed? Humans now have the knowledge and tools to modify the genetic code of any organism, from small bacteria to people, and not only of living species but also of organisms long extinct, all supported by great computing power and connectivity to the network for data processing with powerful software. And these revolutionary techniques do not require large, sophisticated laboratories and exceptional funding, but are accessible to anyone with a basic laboratory and very precise ideas.
What is the responsibility of schools? Education must necessarily be able to interpret these changes and provide students with tools for their understanding and interpretation of these changes in order to be participants, protagonists, and not passive spectators. This is the context for the course “The new frontiers of biotechnology: What are the ethical dilemmas?” organized by the Liceo Romagnosi in collaboration with ABE Italy, for secondary school teachers in the city of Parma and its province, as well as schools in the national network of ABE Italy.
The course was structured in three phases: distance learning, instructional design, and experimentation. The first phase included an excellent selection of four speakers (Silvano Allasia, Antonio D'aloia, Anna Meldolesi, and Marco Annoni), who have guided their own students in understanding the epistemological status and methodologies of bioethics, the relationship between bioethics and law, the applications and potential of biotechnology, and the relationship between biotechnology and bioethics, providing many ideas that can be used in others’ teaching practice.
The second phase involved teachers gathered in 14 heterogeneous groups by discipline and, where possible, the same school, engaged in the development of interdisciplinary paths and learning units for their classes. I have recognized that a distinctive feature of ABE Italy is that it always proposes innovative teaching methods, involving participants in the “situation” to “experience” the change as students would. Teachers from different disciplines, training, and experience have collaborated and established synergies driven by a common goal: to offer their students more effective teaching. In the final phase, the works were published on a shared Padlet, presented by the groups, and commented on by participants and by Professor Allasia. All agreed that the results exceeded the most optimistic expectations: the works produced were of great quality, both for content and for teaching methods. As a result, a collection of valid and interesting didactic proposals has been created, which can be used by all the participants. Is this all? No. The results demonstrate the often-overlooked potential of the school, which can respond to the needs of a society in continuous change, while maintaining its role of "compass" and garrison of "humanity".
And it is precisely in order to respond to this need that teachers have gone beyond the boundaries of their own discipline to meet in a space in which to integrate different knowledge to explore and broaden their horizons. In this context, what the school system circumscribes in the various disciplines, finds its own unity, and restores complexity and richness to educational studies. Prejudices and stereotypes are overcome: science is not only material, arid, and cynical; philosophy is not abstract and mental; art is not useless and superfluous; and religion is not only transcendental. All these "necessities" coexist within people, and engaging them in dialogue activates synergies and offers students a model of humanity. As has often happened in the history of humanity, new scientific discoveries and technological innovations have repercussions on society; cause changes, some of which are unpredictable and global in scope (atomic bomb, pollution, climate change, etc.); and require a choice based on ethical evaluations. The materials developed during this course actively involve students, who are asked to express their opinions, to discuss risk–benefit analysis, to make choices (even if hypothetical), and to discuss ethical evaluations of scientific issues, all to move from a horizon of proximity to a vision of farsightedness and thus develop critical thinking, exercising skills of "humanly sustainable", active, and responsible citizenship.
I conclude by thanking the organizers, trainers, and teachers—all companions on this exceptional adventure ... goodbye until the next time.
If you would like to share your experiences as an ABE teacher, student, or colleague, please send your ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.