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Dr. Klein's Course of the Year: from generics to genetics

Sept. 11Dr. Joanna Klein's students are learning "The Language of Life” again this fall, as she takes them on a semester-long delve into genetics. The course for non-biology majors debuted last fall, winning 2011 Course of the Year from the Association for Christian Distance Education (ACDE).

Inpsired by a Blended Learning workshop last summer, Klein created "DNA: The Language of Life" as a course alternative to the general biology survey, which lacked time for topics students wanted to talk about more.

“Something like genetics is really relevant these days for people’s health and for medicine.  In agriculture you have genetically engineered crops; medicines are made through genetic engineering,” Klein explained, “And now there is personalized medicine where you can take a DNA sample, send it away and figure out what you might develop or, if you have a propensity for certain diseases."

Klein's  vision to explore relatable genetics topics translated easily into the hybrid learning approach: hands-on lab experience within normal class hours, online quizzes and a wiki on Moodle, discourses in class and online, and, in place of the traditional textbook, a reader-friendly dialogue by evangelical Klein with her son Ethangeneticist Francis Collins. When these elements went live in the classroom, Klein witnessed many results she hoped for and some she didn't expect:

“In one chapter of the book, the author talked about his testimony and so I had [the class] respond to that and share their own if they were comfortable.  And that’s something that I don’t normally do in my classes, have everyone share their own story.”

With breathing room for spirituality, the course also carried a philosophical quality Klein found refreshing.

“I like science and math because there’s normally a right and wrong answer,” she said, “But in genetics, we’re still trying to figure things out. Is it nature or is it nurture? Well it’s not one or the other; it’s both.”

Wading through grey areas like eugenics, genetic testing and evolution may have left students with more questions than answers, but Klein said that is her goal:

”I want them to discover it on their own and maybe even open their minds.”

With a second wave of students this fall, Klein hopes non-majors will value their time in the world of genetics, even if material doesn’t apply directly to a job or their field.  For students who are pursuing science degrees, Northwestern faculty offer the combination of mentorship and research, an undergraduate experience Klein called rare and valuable.

“We care about the students and teaching—and them learning.”

Course of the Year : “DNA: The Language of Life” was judged alongside other hybrid courses submitted by Christian colleges around the country in media quality, general appearance, resource integration, student interaction, and technology support.