Monthly Archives: July 2015

A good week

nb: this will the last burble of the academic year 2014-15 – the summer holidays are nigh and I want to think about anything other than teaching for at least 6 weeks. But it’s nice to end the summer term on a high note and I’m going to tell you about my 15 minutes of fame.

It’s been a good week.

I started with the glorious weather last weekend that finally enabled us to dig out the water slide and set our sons loose on it. As you can see, George is very happy.


I bought a £2 scratch card that had a £5 prize.

We took our first honey harvest of the year.

And then there was this.

I won’t bore you with details of the process, other than to say that it was very thorough. But, for the final burble of the academic year 2014-2015, I thought I’d tell you about the lesson the judges from the Society of Biology observed.

Year 13. Gene Therapy.

As always, when originally planning this lesson (it’s been in the files for about 4 years), I try to think how to make the students do all the work. Or, rather, how to engage them, make them think, and ensure effective learning. The idea is very simple. We start by covering the actual principle of gene therapy very quickly. Broken gene = broken protein = disease. Insert working gene = working protein = cure. But I want them to get a much fuller appreciation of what the process might involve.

So I divided them into teams of 4 and asked them to imagine that they were working on the development team at Glaxo-Smithkline – or possibly setting up a Young Enterprise Team, depending on the scale of their ambition. Gene therapy is on the research agenda and they’ve been asked to identify a potential genetic disease for gene therapy development. I give them a list of 6 different genetic diseases and ask them to carry out the research that will enable them to identify the most likely contender for successful gene therapy.

Gene Therapy revised 2015

At this point, it’s very important to clarify the rules. They must NOT go away and enter a search for “Cystic Fibrosis, gene therapy” into Google. They’re researching the disease itself, not gene therapy, and using that information to make their own decisions as to whether it’s worth investing zillions of dollars of development money into. They will need to consider lots of different criteria in order to justify their decision.

Now, if your lesson is being observed as part of deciding the Biology Teacher of the Year award, you obviously want to choose a goodie, and this particular example has always proved popular and successful in the past. It has everything I like in a lesson – challenge, interest, relevance, independent team learning and the chance for me to make a coffee and put my feet up catch up with vital administration. Nonetheless – and this is always a good reason to welcome lesson observation – I went away and updated/tightened up the instructions. In addition, I changed some of my original 6 diseases to include conditions currently being researched.

The girls were suitably and predictably brilliant. The judges were great too. There wasn’t any loitering in the back of the lab, doodling on note pads, they both immediately joined a group so that they could talk to the girls and see what was going on. After about 10 minutes of initial brain- storming they had all established a list of criteria to look for in their disease of choice. It needed to be:

  • common enough to make it commercially viable (and common in the developed world, where it could be afforded)
  • it needed to be a recessive condition so that the introduction of a functioning allele could make a difference
  • the affected gene and its associated protein needed to be known and the mechanism fully understood
  • and there needed to be a plausible way of getting at the affected cells.

At this point, they headed off to the IT rooms (pre-booked) and the judges dutifully trotted after them. I took the chance to make a coffee and put my feet up catch up with vital administration.

40 minutes later they were back.

It’s interesting how they divide the jobs up. One team decided to allocate a disease per person. The other team worked through the diseases in order, but with each person looking for a specific feature of each disease. Either way, it worked.

So, discussion time. Are there any diseases that they’ve managed to eliminate as possibilities?

Haemophilia is always one of the first to go. Why? Well, there’s a perfectly effective treatment so it’s hard to justify the cost. Plus, they add, completely straight faced, it only affects men, so why bother? Ah, the joys of teaching in a girls’ school!

Von Hippel-Lindau disease is also easy to eliminate (always good to include some diseases they haven’t heard of – this one sounds intriguing and adds a layer of interest to the research). It’s a truly horrendous condition, but it affects every single one of the 50,000,000,000,000 cells in the body – utterly impossible to deliver a working gene on that scale. Plus it’s thankfully very rare – so, brutal economic reality intruding, you’d never recover your research costs.

Parkinson’s disease raises interesting debate because it’s not a genetic disease. You don’t inherit it. There’s no obvious gene to correct. It’s caused by a specific set of brain cells dying (cells in an area of the brain called the substantia nigra) that deprive the brain of its ability to make the vital neurotransmitter dopamine. For all these reasons, they dismiss Parkinsons as a possible candidate for gene therapy. They do recognise, however, the vast and increasing market available for a successful treatment.

So, the thoughtful reader might enquire, why did I put Parkinson’s on the list at all? Aha, replies the faithful burbler, because there is a gene therapy for this disease currently being researched by a company called Oxford Biomedica (who are also working on Stargardt disease). They’re obviously chasing the potential billions in revenue, but how would this actually work? The students get there quicker than I thought they might – could you put Dopamine gene(s) into some other brain cells, so the ability to synthesize dopamine is restored?


OK, what about the other options? What did they decide for themselves?

Inevitably, cystic fibrosis is everyone’s favourite. It fulfils all the criteria for potential gene therapy. It’s common, particularly in the developed world. It’s recessive. The relevant protein and its mechanism are well understood. Best of all, the cells are readily accessible – lining the airways of the lungs, they are actually in contact with the outside world, so it’s very easy to deliver your treatment, whatever form it takes, to the very cells that need it.

Which is why, of course, everyone has been chasing cystic fibrosis gene therapy for 20 years or more.

And, as a sobering return to reality, in all that time, and despite the billions spent and the careers of brilliant people dedicated to the research, there is still no gene therapy treatment for any genetic disease.

Thank you very much to everyone who has been following my blog. I hope you’ve found it interesting and, if a biology teacher, useful. I plan to be back in the autumn with more of the same. Have a fantastic summer. I’ll leave you with some photos of the Biological Cakes that the Year 12s have been making. Can you guess what they all are?

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Pressing none of the right buttons

So, last week I made reference to a Year 7 lesson on Animal Behaviour  that I thought people might like to try. Scanning back through previous posts, a kind of retro-burble, I notice that I had already mentioned this in passing as part of a Year 13 lesson. Given that the new A-level specification has completely removed any mention of Animal Behaviour as a Biological topic (why? what were they thinking?!!? absolute madness!!!!) I have simply moved all the wonderful practical activities down to KS3 so that our students get at least some exposure to this fascinating area of Biology.

Which brings us to Skinner Boxes. This follows rather neatly from the work they did with Hettie and Herbie (our hamsters) in their splendid cardboard mazes. After a brief review of the pros and cons of studying behaviour in a laboratory setting, I explain that today they will be working with a brand new animal. Can they guess what it is?

I leave most of the girls in the lab, under the supervisory gaze of our technician, and take two of them (pre-selected) into a neighbouring lab. Here I show them the “Skinner Box”, simply some tables rearranged to enclose a small, square area, with a button-operated bulb on each side (your Physics technician can run up a pair of these in 5 minutes or less). I explain to the two girls that they will be operating the Skinner box. This involves following the instructions on a series of experiments (Skinner box operator instructions 2 Skinner box operator instructions 1 where “rats” (i.e. Year 7 girls) are put, one at a time, into the box and allowed to explore their surroundings. The operators sit outside the box, opposite each other, with a box of Maltesers (to provide suitable rewards), and a long ruler (to provide “punishment”) each.

They quickly grasp what they’re meant to do. I tell them to keep the Maltesers out of sight, under the desk, and to not let anyone else read the instructions. For the first series of experiments, every “rat” will be a sample in Experiment 1 – the “rats” simply have to do is press the button and light up the bulb – if they manage this, they get a Malteser….

I go back next door. Have they guessed the animal yet? Mice! Woodlice! Guinea pigs! Rabbits! No, it’s a much simpler animal. Very basic instincts. Very readily available in a school setting. At this precise moment you are never more than, oooh, 50cm from one…. Oh, is it us? Bingo!

I tell them that they will play the part of experimental rats. That I’m going to take them one by one into my other laboratory and observe their behaviour for 15 seconds. That’s all. They’ve seen how hamsters behave in a strange setting – just pretend you’re a hamster. And I will be filming it all on the department i-pad.

And we’re off. Olivia, the first “rat” in, provides a textbook example.  She snuffles around inquisitively and, with seeming inevitability, presses a button. Flora (one of the Skinner Box operatives) dutifully delivers a Malteser. Olivia giggles with surprise and delight and immediately presses the button again. Voila! Another Malteser is provided. I quickly stop her because I don’t want the Maltesers to run out – she’s got the idea, she’s learned the association.

Experimental rats get to watch the other rats being tested – it’s partly the logistical difficulties of having yet another holding area, but mainly because I want them to see and enjoy what’s going on.

At this point, something rather surprising happens. The next 5 girls do nothing – literally, nothing. They stand there, all self-conscious and slightly giggly, some not even looking around, but absolutely refusing to risk doing anything in case it’s wrong. “What am I supposed to do?” some of them mouth at the other girls, but they are under strict instructions not to give any clues, and after 15 seconds I put them out of their misery (i.e. I stop the experiment – I don’t put them down humanely!).

Sofia, rat number 7, behaves just like Olivia (hurrah!) and then, joy of joy, in steps Maria who just decides that she will spend her 15 seconds spinning like a whirling dervish, her long blonde pony tail whirling behind her. “I’m dizzy….” she gurgles delightedly as she staggers out of the test area. By now, of course, every girl in the room now realises that they should have done and while feeling rather foolish and frustrated, they’re also enjoying seeing others miss the point.

By the end, only 5 out of 20 girls were sufficiently curious and lacking in anxiety to win some Maltesers. The rest just didn’t want to risk doing anything in case it turned out to be wrong, whatever that might mean. Where does this fear come from? Our education system? Our nationality? Can we blame Michael Gove? Whatever the reason, it makes for a good life lesson. Take a chance! Just do it! What’s the worst thing that can happen? You might win a Malteser!

Of course, having now all seen the kind of thing that’s going on, they’re all suitably prepped for the second round of experiments. This time I let everyone watch, because all the experiments are different. And now they are wonderfully imaginative and creative in their quest to get the right behaviour pattern. I particularly like the girl who just stands in the middle of the box and says, very quietly and politely, “Please can I have a Malteser?” Some girls find they are being prodded by a ruler – which continues until they press the button. And so on.

It makes for terrific discussion. How is this different to the maggot behaviour? Which is better for learning, reward or punishment? Should you revise with chocolate or electric shocks? And where are the real life examples of this kind of learning? This last takes them a while, but they eventually come up with learning what stinging nettles look like (could be a good comparison to start the exercise – demo lots of different leaves – which ones do they know), and the warning colours of bees and wasps.

Learning about Learning by doing – the only type there is.

And that’s nearly yer lot for this year. I’ll post one more burble next Wednesday, and then it’s the summer holidays. I, for one, can’t wait.