Let's start by looking at one aspect of her proposal.
Rosie thinks that a 21st century course on genetics should focus on information that students can use later on. Here's how she would begin her new course ...
Box 4 gives a suggested syllabus for a 21st century genetics course. It begins with a human focus, introducing personal genomics and our natural genetic variation. Students then learn about the underlying molecular explanations—how differences in DNA sequences arise and evolve, and how they cause differences in phenotype—followed by how genetic differences are inherited and recombined.Long-time Sandwalk readers will know that I am opposed to the idea that we should teach fundamental science by focusing on applications. They will also know that I'm not a fan of appealing to what students are interested in instead of what we experts think they should know. Catering to the prejudices students is a cop-out.
Finally, I think we should try whenever possible to wean students away from an anthropological perspective on science. They enter university with the misconception that humans are the most important thing on the planet and we should try, whenever possible, to teach them about other species.
As far as I'm concerned those are fatal objections to beginning a genetics course with an emphasis on humans and personal genomics. However, there are also practical matters.
The source of natural genetic variation is, indeed, a fundamental concept that should be part of any modern genetics course. It's not a simple concept. Students first need to know about mutation, including its source and its frequency. They then need to know about forces that remove variation, including natural selection and random genetic drift. Then they need to learn about the rates of these processes and the principles of population genetics; especially the effect of population size.
In order to understand human genetic variation, students need to appreciate complex population structure as well as simple Mendelian genetics.
Then there's the important question that occupied geneticists in the 1960s. Is standing variation maintained by balancing selection? [The Cause of Variation in a Population] (I learned recently that many evolutionary biologists still think that balancing selection is important.)
All these things need to be covered first. Then, and only then, can we introduce students to human variation and personal genomics. You don't start a course by showing students the most complex known example of genetic variation. You start with simple examples and basic concepts then work your way up to the more difficult examples.
A good place to see these and other changes is headline news—Box 3 gives some high-ranking hits from a recent Google News search for “genetics”. These raise complex questions, both personal and societal, that our students will need to answer. Is genetic testing a wise thing to do? Is it a sound financial investment? Should I have full access to my genetic information? Should my insurer and my employer? Should athletes be tested for genetic modifications (“gene doping”)? Is it ethical to DNA-fingerprint all convicted criminals? All suspects? Did my genes make me gay? Are genetically modified foods safe? Are cloned animals ethical? How different are human races, and how different are we all from chimpanzees and gorillas?Some of those are interesting questions and a thorough discussion of possible answers can go a long way toward teaching critical thinking. It would be very useful for students to debate those issues in tutorials, although I would substitute some others that had less of a human focus (e.g. why do species have sex?, are genomes full of junk DNA?, what is a gene?, where do superbugs come from?, do mutation rates vary?)
And if you're teaching planetary astronomy then debating whether Pluto should be a planet is an excellent way to get into some serious science. I agree with Rosie that we need to move away from traditional memorize & regurgitate courses and we need to focus on student-centered learning. I just disagree with her solution.
Some of Rosie's questions are questions about ethics, not science. We debate some of them in my course but only after spending a good deal of time on the difference between science controversies and ethics controversies. (Starting this year, my co-instructor is a philosopher, Chris DiCarlo.)
In my experience, most scientists and graduate students are not capable of leading a discussion on human races, the ethics of DNA fingerprinting, or whether you should pay to get your genome sequenced. In order to do it properly, I think it takes a lot more skill than Rosie is willing to admit.
Redfield, R. (2012) "Why Do We Have to Learn This Stuff?"—A New Genetics for 21st Century Students. PLoS Biol 10(7): e1001356. [doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001356]