By Donovan Kavish ’13

“EVERYTHING IN THIS COURSE has shady areas that can be ethically and morally debated. I love this since I can argue for a long time,” says Guillermo Vera ’16 (Caracas, Venezuela) of his first-year course Biotech and Society.

Covering such hot topics as stem cell research, genetic testing, and genetically modified foods, this class is designed to expose students to the science behind these issues, while also engaging them with the moral and ethical issues involved.

“You open up the newspaper and every day there is some new issue related to genetics/molecular biology,” biology professor Mary Montgomery explains. “I want my students to be able to read the newspaper without taking what’s said at face value, and to have a deeper understanding of what’s involved in these applications of genetic technology so they can make informed decisions when these technologies affect their lives.”

A course highlight comes during the unit on genetically modified food, when Montgomery takes the class to the St. Paul Farmers Market. Everything that’s sold at the downtown market is produced on small farms located within 50 miles of the city. However, not all the produce sold there is raised on organic farms, which allows the students, says Montgomery, to “actually talk to real farmers about why they are or are not organic farmers.”

This outing is particularly popular with students. The idea of local farmers using chemicals was surprising to Olivia Sparks ’16 (Eldon, Mo.), who comes from an area with a large Mennonite population. “Where I come from I’m used to getting organic vegetables from the Mennonite farms,” says Sparks. Not all of the day’s surprises were related to questions of organics, however. “I saw fresh Brussels sprouts and wild cranberries for the first time that day. Talk about culture shock!” laughs the South American Vera.

The residential component of this course undoubtedly plays a role in its atmosphere. Many of the students arrive early for class and lively conversations regularly ensue on everything from other courses to what they did the previous weekend. The upbeat atmosphere carries throughout the hour. “People in this class know each other better than in my other classes, which makes it more entertaining because of the inside jokes,” says Vera.

“The ability to think critically and express my opinions has never been challenged as much as it has been here at Macalester.”

Another strength of residential courses is the potential to meet like-minded students. “As a pre-med major, I enjoy getting to know other people with similar majors and interests,” says Sparks. Montgomery enjoys the friendlier atmosphere as well. “It’s just fun. You find out who is rooming with whom and you get to know the students better and potentially for four years,” she says.

As expected given the nature of the issues Biotech and Society addresses, discussion plays a large role in the course. “Prior to Macalester, I’d never spent an entire class on pure discussion. It’s great to engage in these talks with my peers,” says Vera. “The ability to think critically and express my opinions has never been challenged as much as it has been here at Macalester.”

February 1 2013

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