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Signature Course Reflects Vision for Connecting Science to Social Issues

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For nearly a decade, genetics professor Terry McGuire has been participating in a national movement aimed at expanding the scope of science education by showing how science relates to contemporary issues.

This fall, McGuire’s first-ever Signature Course - Genetics, Evolution and Human Health will reflect some of the innovative ideas and approaches he has absorbed.

“People think of science as this special thing that scientists do that has no connection to their lives,” McGuire said recently. “If there is one goal I have for this course, it’s to show students that science is not separate from our lives.”

School of Arts and Sciences Signature Courses are foundational classes that examine topics of wide scope and enduring importance, from war, to climate change, to race in America. 

As its title suggests, Genetics, Evolution and Human Health is interdisciplinary in nature, focusing on genetics and evolutionary biology. But it also explores issues that affect everyone’s lives, such as why people get sick, and what science can tell us about illness.

“If you watch the news, then you might think obesity exists only because we eat too much; or in the case of New York City, because we drink too many soft drinks,” McGuire said.  “But science shows us that industrial pollution causes obesity; that not getting enough sleep causes obesity.

“So if you are going to deal with the social issues, you’re going to have to know the science. You can’t just say: ‘it’s your fault, you have to be a better person.’’’

McGuire, a Rutgers professor since 1979, has long been interested in teaching science in ways that illuminate and demystify societal problems. He introduced a course called Genetics, Law and Social Policy.

But it was his involvement with the national group Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities, or  SENCER that profoundly affected his teaching.

Serving a growing community of faculty, students and academic leaders, SENCER provides programs and professional development aimed at broadening the scope of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) courses, with a strong emphasis on connecting core class material to critical issues at the local, national, and global levels.

SENCER, which is affiliated with the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement, has several important connections to Rutgers. The organization's mission has its roots in a course developed at Rutgers by Monica Devanas that used the HIV epidemic to teach biological concepts. David Burns, an assistant vice president at Rutgers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was principle investigator on a grant that funded the course. Burns went on to co-found SENCER.

McGuire, a senior associate with SENCER, said the group’s approach can benefit both science and non-science majors.

 “The idea is to start with what people understand, what they are interested in; how did they evolve, why do they have blue eyes?” McGuire said. “Then you drill down through those issues into the science.”

For the Signature Course, students will read popular and acclaimed books like The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey by Spencer Wells, a geneticist and anthropologist who traces the human migrations out of Africa. Students will also read The Wild Life of Our Bodies by biologist Rob Dunn, who says humans have cut themselves off from the natural environment in ways that are both beneficial and harmful.

“We are going to be spending time just looking at what it means to be human,” McGuire said. “How did we evolve?  We migrated all over the world. We adapted to harsh climates. I want students to understand it’s a long struggle, and it shapes who we are and what we do.”

McGuire is palpably excited about the course. It ties together much of what he has learned about teaching, while reflecting his deepest values about science education.

“I see it as a capstone experience,” he said. “I am really ready to teach this class.”

Written by John Chadwick | SAS Senior Writer



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