Science & Politics of the GMO: Fall 2016

Click here to access complete, archived course on edX. 

Course Description:

What exactly are genetically modified organisms (GMOs)? Why do they attract so much attention in politics and society? Why do scientists develop GMOs? Why do many people and nations oppose the GMO? Studying the science of GMOs helps us understand biotechnology’s potential role in addressing challenges in agriculture. Studying GMOs in the social and political world helps us understand reasons for contention.

In this free Massive Open Online Course, hosted through the Cornell University and edX collaboration, the several-thousand enrolled learners engaged

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“Science & Politics of the GMO” MOOC teaching team in front of the Barbara McClintock shed at Cornell University.

with the basics of genetic engineering, explored the political debate around the GMO, and reviewed the arguments for and against genetic engineering of crops for agriculture.

We studied the politics surrounding the GMO and its impact at both an individual level and to society as a whole, including the problems, perceptions, benefits, and risks associated with GMOs. To understand the complexities around this topic we not only look at the science behind how the GMO works, but also the limitations of this science. We discussed the importance of information literacy as a tool for effectively identifying and evaluating issues.

Our goal in making this MOOC was to develop people’s understanding of science, the contributions and limits of science, and how scientific information is transmitted. The intent is not to influence how people feel about GMOs, but to give them the critical thinking and scientific literacy tools necessary to make informed decisions — and to understand the broader impacts of those decisions.

Click here to download complete syllabus.

My positionality:

As the graduate teaching assistant employed on the course, I was involved in all facets of course design and management: from written, information graphic, video, and interview content (and review) on topics ranging from fundamentals of plant breeding to biopiracy and the limitations of science. I also was responsible for assessment design.

While I have my concerns about the broader politics of the course itself (see here), I am confident my skills as a young science and technology studies scholar reflect throughout the course design. For example, I fought for the development of a module that explored the valid critiques of GMO technology, namely, from the perspective of naturalness. Below I outline some of my contributions.

SAMPLE — Week 2: Why Not GMOs?: Module 2: Unnatural

What is natural? Are GMOs “unnatural?” In this module we will look at some of the many uses of the term natural, examine the controversies behind the term, and learn about other innovations that were historically seen as unnatural. 

In this module we:

  • Consider what is “natural”
  • Deconstruct the term “natural” in order to understand why it’s so controversial and difficult to define
  • Consider what is at stake with different definitions of nature
  • Decide for yourself what natural means to you. Consider whether or not the policies in your country or region align with your values
  • Evaluate parallels between GM crops today and other controversial technologies of the past
  • Discuss the role the incorporation of traditional, local knowledge plays (or should play) in technology development

Lecture: “GMOs are Different”

Lecture: “Plunder of Nature & Knowledge”

Also during this module, I organized an online, live dialogue with Neil Patterson, Assistant Director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science & Forestry (SUNY-ESF). In this discussion, hosted on the “Shindig” platform, we discussed the work of other scientists at SUNY-ESF working to genetically engineer an American chestnut tree to resist a fungal blight that has nearly eradicated the heritage tree species.

One particularly interesting element of the so-called “American Chestnut Research and Restoration Project” is SUNY-ESF’s proximity to the Onondaga Nation Territory, a sovereign indigenous nation of the Haudenosaunee Iroquois. This presents cultural barriers that the researchers are attempting to navigate. Patterson, himself a member of the Haudenosaunee, helps students to consider, among other things, how indigenous populations respond to scientific innovation and the voice they have in technoscientific decision making.

Recorded online discussion with Dr. Neil Patterson

Teaching the social construction of GMO technology

A core theme of science and technology studies is the social construction of science and technology. As an STS scholar, I sought every opportunity to reiterate this concept throughout this MOOC. Two ways I attempted to accomplish this were (1) through the course title, and (2) through an ongoing assessment that asked students to develop their own definition of “the GMO.”

While predictably presenting general material on genetics, scientific controversy, scientific consensus, and science communication, course designers chose not to provide students with a singular definition of “GMO.” Over the five weeks, we challenged students to develop their own working definition of the term through a recurrent “GMO Journal Activity.”

Along with this critical reflection, we asked students to continuously consider the following Discussion Question:

As we close out the first week of the course, we’d like you to take a few minutes to reflect on the course title: “Science and Politics of the GMO.” Why do you think we choose to include “the GMO” instead of just “GMO”? How is it different? What do you think is at stake in the answer?

The following is a sampling of the nearly 150 student responses. As the following selections from my extensive qualitative data illustrate, emergent themes include the students’ appreciation for the complexity of “the GMO” beyond its purely scientific attributes, the social construction of facts and the perceived neutrality of science, and the difficulty in defining the topic of “GMO” in simple terms.

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More information or a more extensive portfolio is available upon request.

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