Carnegie Mellon University
Educating Global Citizens

Educating Global Citizens

The MCS mini-course Biotechnology Impacting Our Selves, Society and Sphere not only gives students book smarts; it gives them street smarts — on a global scale.

"This class really changes the way you look at the world," said senior Leland Thorpe. "Classes like this one are few and far between."

Called BIOS3 for short, the class is the brainchild of Assistant Dean Amy Burkert and her MCS colleagues Associate Dean Eric Grotzinger and Biological Sciences Professor William Brown, who died last year. The course, which currently focuses on HIV/AIDS, was designed with some 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. But the BIOS3 class isn't just about HIV/AIDS. Students are trained to apply this framework to tackle other global biotechnology issues, including stem cells, genetically modified foods and the emerging tuberculosis epidemic.

For many students in the class, this approach was very rewarding but unlike anything they had learned in a class before.

"I'm used to doing abstract math and working with computers," said Thorpe, a computer science major. "But this class expands the things you are aware of and how you see issues."

A tenet of BIOS3, which is funded by President Cohon's Global Education Initiative, is to help students gain an appreciation of the social and cultural contexts that are involved in HIV/AIDS and other international health issues and the impact they can have at individual, societal and global levels. Burkert and Grotzinger not only brought in guest speakers from local volunteer organizations, like Prevention Point Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force, but they also organized an effort to assemble "caregiver kits" for family members and volunteers who are caring for people living with AIDS in Africa. Distributed via Global Links, the caregiver kits include simple items like antibacterial soap, cotton balls and latex gloves and provide caregivers with the supplies they need to help tend to their patients and to protect themselves 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."

Students' global awareness was enhanced by having a firm grasp of the science of HIV. On the first day of class, students from various backgrounds - art, computer science, biology, business - jumped right in with a thorough study of HIV. Students learned how the virus operates, adding new terms like reverse transcriptase and CD4 to their vocabulary. Once they mastered this new knowledge, they applied it to understanding how HIV infection is diagnosed and treated. They even went to the lab to perform an Enzyme-Linked ImmunoSorbent Assay (ELISA), the first test used to screen blood for HIV. For many students, including Thorpe and art major Brenda Battad, this marked their first experience working in a biology lab.

Because they had a grasp of the biological processes surrounding HIV/AIDS, students could appreciate why the disease is so difficult to fight or why sticking to the antiretroviral drug schedule is imperative to stopping HIV from becoming drug resistant. But having this solid scientific foundation is only the beginning. The next critical step, which is quite challenging in science classrooms, is to translate the science to the real world and to real people. Gathering for class at 7:30 a.m. one morning, students spoke via Skype, an internet-based phone service, with doctors working with HIV+ patients in Zambia and Kenya. Interacting with doctors working in Africa and in Pittsburgh and with patients living with HIV was a profound and eye-opening experience for many students.

"Seeing statistics in an article isn't anything compared with someone telling you about their experiences. It reminds you of why you are studying what you're studying," said Akshay Goel, a computer science major and premed student.

"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," wrote a student in a course reflection paper assignment. "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."