Books smarts and street smarts on a global scale. That's what Carnegie Mellon students get through a mini-course called Biotechnology Impacting Our Selves, Society and Sphere — or BIOS³.
Developed by Assistant Dean Amy Burkert and Associate Dean Eric Grotzinger, in the Mellon College of Science (MCS), the class is now focused on HIV/AIDS and brings students in contact with doctors in Zambia and Kenya working with HIV patients.
"Seeing statistics in an article isn't anything compared with someone telling you about their experiences," said Akshay Goel, a computer science major and pre-med student. "It reminds you of why you are studying what you're studying."
The course was designed with three basic principles in mind: teach students the core science; help them make sense of their new knowledge using a global perspective; and encourage them to take personal action.
The course goes beyond HIV/AIDS issues. Students are trained to apply this framework to tackle other global biotechnology issues — including stem cells, genetically modified foods and the emerging tuberculosis epidemic.
From the first day of class, students jump right into a thorough study of HIV/AIDS issues — learning how the virus operates, mastering the lingo and eventually entering the lab to perform their own blood-screening tests.
Armed with a grasp of the science, students acquire an appreciation for such things as why HIV/AIDS is so tough to fight and why sticking to an antiretroviral drug schedule is imperative to stopping HIV from becoming drug resistant.
The next critical step is to translate that understanding to the real world. Through an Internet-based phone service, the students speak with doctors with real-life experience trying to stop the epidemic.
Burkert and Grotzinger also organized an effort to assemble "caregiver kits" for family members and volunteers who are caring for people living with AIDS in Africa — complete with antibacterial soap, cotton balls, latex gloves and other supplies to protect caregivers from infection.
"The service learning component really enhanced student engagement," Burkert said. "By providing students with a level of scientific literacy necessary to understand and respond to personal, societal and global challenges like HIV/AIDS, we can help them realize that they can make an impact."
One student wrote in a course reflection paper: "I hope I will always be able to conjure those particular feelings within myself to approach problems; there is no better motivation than believing in the realness of a situation."
The student added, "I think this course is quite an encouragement in the fight against daunting challenges like HIV/AIDS because it models the winning approach — the approach from all angles."