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The National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) held the Education and Public Outreach workshop on June 10, 2002, at the Bethesda Hyatt as part of its yearlong planning effort.

Current Educational and Public Outreach Activities

Education is not the primary mission of the NHGRI. Yet, the institute is committed to educational and public outreach efforts as they relate to NHGRI's research objectives. Through its Division of Intramural Research (DIR), NHGRI makes a substantial investment in professional training and career development. The Division of Extramural Research (DER) provides training grants that support research students and professionals, as well as invests in education efforts related to the Ethical, Legal and Social Implications (ELSI) Research Program. NHGRI's Office of the Director (OD) also is involved in a range of educational efforts.

NHGRI's education investments include: OD staff time and related expenses; within DIR, approximately $500,000 in salaries and other expenses for its Office of Science Education; and in DER, through ELSI, the majority of the institute's discretionary spending is for education. The total amount of money committed to education varies somewhat each year. In fiscal year (FY) 2001, the NHGRI budget office reported a total of $3,096,000 expended in the Public Health Education category, a specific budgetary category that includes all education programming. Of that, $2,099,000 was distributed as grants by the ELSI program. In the current FY2002, NHGRI has budgeted a total of $4,700,000 in the Public Health Education category, including $3,285,000 to be distributed as grants by the ELSI program. The budget request for FY2003 in this category is $5,124,000, with $3,613,000 going to ELSI.

Basic Observations Made by Workshop Participants

  1. Taking a college science course is the strongest predictor of whether an individual will be attentive to science or describe himself or herself as knowledgeable about biomedical research.
  2. For a majority of Americans, the science course they take in 10th grade will be their last formal training in science. For a majority of students, this will be a biology course.
  3. Media - print and broadcast news - have the next strongest influence on biomedical literacy for the general population, after college science courses.
  4. Approximately 32 million Americans (out of 280 million) say they pay attention to biomedical research and consider themselves well informed about science-related issues.
  5. About 80 percent of Americans believe in the promise and the basic social value of science and technology, though many have reservations about specific scientific issues and worry that it makes their personal lives change too fast. The more media Americans consume about science and medicine, the fewer their reservations and concerns.
  6. Public schools generally under fund science courses, leaving them short on curricula, computers and wet lab supplies.
  7. Public outreach - that is, education outside of the formal school setting - was considered to be the hardest to implement and the activity likely to have the least impact. It was, however, still deemed an important activity and worthy of some investment, since more than half of all Americans do not go to college.

A Menu of Issues to Discuss and Recommendations

Workshop participants provided a wide range of suggestions and recommendations. The following represent those that seemed most urgent.

  1. MONEY: NHGRI leadership must determine whether the institute is investing the appropriate amount of money in education and public outreach. Current resources are limited to Research Management Support (RMS) in the Office of the Director, the DIR funds invested in the Office of Science Education and around $4 million in ELSI grants. There was a general sense among workshop participants that this was inadequate to have a real impact through education and public outreach efforts. Given the institute's priorities, should the spending pattern remain the same? Should more money be designated for educational programs, or should education expenditures be redistributed among the institute's offices? These are questions only NHGRI's leadership can answer.
  2. REPURPOSE ELSI EDUCATION FUNDS: There has been a sense among ELSI staff and others that the current education investment might be better used in other ways. For example, the institute could use ELSI education funding for targeted activities and research, instead of waiting for investigators to propose projects. This initiative process could be informed by many factors, including the policy issues faced by the OD policy branch and through opportunities developed by the communications branch.
  3. RESEARCH: It was strongly suggested that NHGRI invest in education research around genomics more than in product development. The general sense was that NHGRI should assess available curricula before creating new materials. If valuable existing curricula can be identified, then money could be invested in marketing these products and getting them into the hands of teachers, instead of investing in the creation of new curricula.
  4. EDUCATION COORDINATOR: There is a clear need to hire a full-time education coordinator in the NHGRI Office of the Director. Presumably this will require a national search to find someone with the right combination of educational skills and biological knowledge, preferably with national standing. The primary role of the education coordinator should be the integration of NHGRI's sometimes disparate educational efforts into a cohesive, proactive institute-wide plan that furthers the institute's goals and mission. Once NHGRI has its house in order, the education coordinator should begin forming strategic relationships with existing producers of genetics curriculum and organizations of teachers who use these products. NHGRI has the scientific expertise; it should partner with educational experts to identify strategic opportunities to advance genetic and genomic instruction. The education coordinator would also work with the OD communications staff and the ELSI program to develop public outreach and education efforts.
  5. DEVELOP INSTITUTE-WIDE EDUCATION PLAN: Currently, the three NHGRI divisions with educational activities operate independently from each other. As institute-wide education and outreach plans are developed, all three groups should be involved in an integrated manner in developing and implementing any resulting plan.
  6. TEACHABLE MOMENT: The general public has little interest in genomics on a day-to-day basis, and any messages on genomics must compete with all other messages in a person's life, including car and sneaker ads, sports scores and national and international news. Individuals, however, become information seekers about genetics and genomics when they are somehow touched by a genetic disorder or stimulated in some other way. This increased interest creates a teachable moment for that individual. NHGRI should develop a series of products - print, web and video - that can be consumed by the general public at the time that they are seeking genetic and genomic information. The availability of this information would be marketed so the general public would know where to find it easily.
  7. EVALUATE CURRENT OUTREACH EFFORTS: Consider a formal evaluation of the institute's current outreach efforts, including minority outreach, educational outreach and public outreach. Outreach efforts exist in DIR, DER, and OD aimed at a wide range of audiences, including the general public, minorities, students and scientists developing their careers. Currently, there is no institute-wide plan for coordinating outreach to all of these populations. NHGRI leadership should decide whether an outreach assessment is needed and whether it should feed into an institute-wide plan for coordinating outreach to NHGRI's various audiences.
  8. MEDIA OUTREACH: Because studies show the consumption of news in the media is second only to college courses in predicting the public's attentiveness and knowledge about science, NHGRI's communications and public outreach staff should begin developing initiatives to provide the media with more background, features, and news stories about the importance of genetic and genomic sciences. Whether this effort would be most effectively achieved through the development of new media products or through increased support of existing reporting training programs (such as those at Cold Spring Harbor and the MIT Knight Center) would have to be determined.
  9. DISCONTINUE CONSUMER DAY: The locally held events where NHGRI puts on an educational program about genomics should end. Studies suggest that these efforts yield little benefit in terms of learning or understanding, yet they consume substantial resources and staff effort. This does not mean that educational efforts like this should never be done, only that they need to be more than local events - including satellite broadcasts, getting on C-SPAN, or taking multiple town meetings on the road around the country.
  10. IN-SCHOOL OPPORTUNITIES: Numerous suggestions were made about how to improve the teaching of genetics and genomics in formal school settings, primarily K-12, but also at the college level. These opportunities include:
    1. K-12
      1. Internet hard drives: Workshop participants were told that while most public schools now have computers, a substantial portion are little more than web browsers linked to the Internet. Hard drives on school-based computers are either inadequately small or full. They lack sufficient hard drive space for students to conduct experimental lessons, such as running bioinformatics programs. One opportunity may be to provide Internet access to surplus NHGRI computer servers to run hard drive farms on which students could run bioinformatics curriculum developed with NHGRI support.
      2. Needs assessment: There was uncertainty about the range and quality of existing curricula and supplemental materials available for K-12 on genetics and genomics. NHGRI might consider supporting a systematic review of existing material to see where the gaps are and what's needed. This should not be done in a vacuum, but rather in a consensus-building fashion involving key constituencies, such as the National Association of Biology Teachers and the National Science Teachers Association. The assessment could direct further NHGRI investments, as well as planning by other organizations interested in biology and genetics.
      3. Marketing, not development: Although the extent of available material is uncertain, there is a sense that a number of usable curriculum products exist, but are sitting unused on the shelf. Either teachers do not know about them, do not have access to them or don't believe they fit their teaching needs. There may be an opportunity for NHGRI to take the initiative in gathering existing genome or genomics-related curricula that are underutilized, evaluate them, give them the institute's stamp of approval and then conduct marketing and distribution efforts to get the best products into the hands of teachers. Distribution - especially of molecular biology wet lab kits - should be organized through recognized and trusted vendors. And, distributed materials will need to meet safety guidelines.
      4. Curriculum supplements: If NHGRI does decide to produce material for this audience, it should focus on curriculum supplements, because they can be introduced faster than the 5-7 year distribution cycle for textbooks. These supplements should be aimed at the high school and maybe the middle school grades, but not elementary school. The materials will need to recognize real-world issues, like 50-minute class sessions. Any curriculum supplements that NHGRI might develop must meet the National Science Education Standards developed by the National Research Council and accommodate the standardized testing emphasis now common in public school districts around the country.
    2. Undergraduate College
      1. Curriculum aimed at two-year colleges: A majority of college students start their careers in two-year schools that have a very different teaching capability than four-year schools. General perception is that instructors in the two-year schools lack confidence in teaching genetic and genomic material. It was the sense of the group that biology and other science teachers in two-year schools could benefit from new curricula in genetics and genomics. This could be limited to the development of teaching modules and supplements.
      2. Majors v. non-majors: Data show that exposure to a college-level science course is the major predictor to science literacy. A substantial majority of college students will not major in a science, so curriculum aimed at non-majors (like the traditional "Physics for Poets" class) could make an important contribution to the public's literacy about genetics and genomics. Almost 90 percent of college students take Introduction to Biology.


June 10, 2002
7:45 a.m. Continental Breakfast
8:30 a.m. Welcome from Francis S. Collins
8:50 a.m. Co-chairs/Moderator address focus of meeting & lay ground rules
9:00 a.m. Presentation by Jon Miller on public perception of and interest in science: A longitudinal study
9:30 a.m. Review background papers, including inventory of current education and outreach efforts of NHGRI, NSF, DOE, etc.
10:00 a.m. Break
10:15 a.m. Reassemble in three break-out groups- K-12, Undergrad, General Public.
Questions to discuss:
  1. What are the gaps in content and implementation in this area?
  2. What messages about genetics and genomics should be aimed at this audience?
  3. What are the preferred methods to deliver this message?
  4. What are the priorities NHGRI should focus on?
12:00 p.m. Lunch
1:00 p.m. Continue break-out groups
2:00 p.m. Break
2:15 p.m. Reassemble as the committee of the whole and share initial lists of specific tasks
4:30 p.m. Next Steps - Larry Thompson
5:00 p.m. Adjourn

Background Papers

Last updated: January 01, 2006