Mount Madonna School Brings CRISPR Technology into the Classroom – Santa Cruz Sentinel

WATSONVILLE — Students in a biomedical engineering class at Mount Madonna School in Watsonville recently conducted a gene-editing experiment using CRISPR technology under the direction of pharmaceutical researcher turned science and engineering teacher Lisa Catterell.

“Students need to know how the world works and where they fall when they step into it,” Catterell said. “This technology is going to be so incredibly relevant, and whether they go on to do biological research, which some of the kids are doing, they need to be educated voters. They need to know when ethical issues arise, what the real story is.”

Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, or CRISPR, technology allows scientists and high school students to locate a specific fragment of DNA or gene and edit it to achieve various outcomes, such as eliminating deadly genetic diseases like sickle cell anemia or, in the case of students with 11th grade in Catterall’s science class transforming a lactose tolerant gene into an intolerant one.

While it might seem like a classroom experiment using the latest gene-editing technology would involve a room full of expensive, specialized equipment, the experiment is simple and inexpensive, according to Catterell.

“Ten years ago it was very expensive to do any genetic engineering,” Catterall said. “CRISPR is very, very simple.”

Science teacher Lisa Catterell holds the CRISPR Education Kit in a box. Credit: Aric Sleeper

Supplies for the gene-editing experiment come in a ready-to-use educational kit that costs about $150 and requires additional equipment typically found in a high school science lab, such as graduated cylinders, pipettes and personal protective equipment.

In addition to studying and conducting the scientific procedures involved in gene editing, Catterall students discuss the ethical and philosophical implications of the technology’s potential applications.

“I’m not quite sure how I feel about the use of gene editing,” said student Cy Harris. “I think it would be good if it was used to eliminate diseases or gene mutations that are detrimental to people’s quality of life.”

Classmate junior Anya Gonzalez shared similar ethical sentiments with her lab partner.

“CRISPR is something that is very controversial, and I think our ethics are behind the technology, so we have to decide where to draw the line with gene editing,” said student Anya Gonzalez. “But I think if we can use it for the greater good, it would be phenomenal.”

Most of the students agreed that the potential of the technology is both exciting and disturbing.

“There’s a lot of opportunity to do both good and bad things, and it’s kind of scary,” said student Emma Moncluse. “I don’t know how I feel about designing the perfect baby, but there’s a lot of potential in focusing on preventing health problems.”

“There are two ways CRISPR can go,” said graduate student Ona Musoll-Buendia. “Some people want to use it to treat fatal genetic diseases, which is fine, but others want to create a super soldier that doesn’t feel emotion or pain so they can just keep fighting, and that’s not okay at all.” .

A Mount Madonna student streaks a plate of bacteria.  Credit: Aric Sleeper
A Mount Madonna student streaks a plate of bacteria. Credit: Aric Sleeper

For students like Sofia Manzoor, the best part of the CRISPR lab is doing every step, from mixing the components to streaking the bacteria plates.

“I’ve always loved doing hands-on activities and I enjoy science and math,” said student Sofia Manzur. “I’m a tactile learner so the whole experience is amazing.”

Although she may eventually choose to major in engineering, junior Erin Kavitsky said she is fascinated by CRISPR and its future implications.

“I didn’t know much about CRISPR before this class, and it blows my mind,” said student Erin Kavitsky. “I feel like it’s so important especially for the younger generations to learn more about it, and I think it could even be taught to students in middle or early high school.”

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