Students Learn Critical Thinking about Science and Public Policy

Jim Ottea

There is a strong commitment to teaching by the faculty in the Department of Entomology, with coursework that serves students within our department, the College of Agriculture and the LSU community as a whole. In addition to instruction at the graduate level, undergraduate classes in the department attract students with general or applied interests in our discipline, as well as those wanting to explore the rich biology of insects. One undergraduate course that is somewhat unique among those in entomology is AGRI 1005, Science and Society.

Science and Society has been offered through the College of Agriculture for more than 15 years and has a unique history. At the inception, and for years after, teaching AGRI 1005 was a team effort. In the early years, it was an “orphan course,” with responsibility for teaching rotated among departments. About 10 years ago, responsibility for the course fell to entomology, where it found a permanent home. The emphasis of the course shifted from a survey of biology to science literacy, and LSU granted approval to offer it as a general education elective. Enrollment soared. During the next five years, AGRI 1005 became one of the most well-attended courses in the College of Agriculture. Enrollment topped out at 270 students, mostly from nonagricultural disciplines. Eventually, enrollment was reduced and capped at two sections, each with 100 students. Most recently, the content of AGRI 1005 was modified for presentation in a discussion-intense format, which is now offered as a seminar (Science for Citizens, HNRS 1035) in the LSU Roger Hadfield Ogden Honors College.

The attraction of the course is its content, which is limited to scientific issues directly relevant to the students. Often, discussions of science in the news include controversies students may read about on their Facebook pages or Twitter feeds. These are interesting times, and there never seems to be a shortage of such topics. For example, this year, we had just discussed pandemics when SARS-COV-2 emerged in China and began spreading across the globe. Students understood how viruses are transmitted, how they attack cells and how vaccines provide protection. Similarly, in 2018, we learned about CRISPR-Cas9, the revolutionary gene-editing tool, and discussed the social ramifications of its potential use for modifying human genes. Later that semester, He Jiankui, an associate professor in Shenzhen, China, used CRISPR- Cas9 to create the first gene-edited human babies. Other topics of current interest discussed in the class include human impact on climate change, current predictions regarding population growth and resource availability, the safety of genetically modified crops, and the genetics and biochemistry of addiction.

The Science for Citizens class helps students develop an intellectual foundation to think critically about scientific issues, which is increasingly essential in today’s world as the interface between scientists and public policy broadens. Throughout 2020, this interface will be dominated by the impact of COVID-19 on global society. However, although the current pandemic has eclipsed them, other issues are looming and will require engagement of a technically literate populace for discussion and resolution.

Jim Ottea is a professor in the Department of Entomology and Erich and Lea Sternberg Honors Professor.

(This article appears in the spring 2020 issue of Louisiana Agriculture, which focuses on entomology.)

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Jim Ottea, professor in the Department of Entomology and the Erich and Lea Sternberg Honors Professor, teaches the Science for Citizens class.

6/16/2020 4:17:31 PM
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