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Pilot stem cell class gives undergrads hands-on experience

- By Krista Conger

Christopher Scott

Christopher Scott

The first year of college is always a whirlwind of experiences. But after last quarter, 11 Stanford freshmen can go home for summer with something more to share than dorm room shenanigans and late-night cram sessions. They did something few scientists have ever done: they created beating heart cells out of human embryonic stem cells.

“It was amazing,” said freshman bioengineering major Javier Guinard. “Getting to work with human embryonic stem cells in the laboratory was a great experience. You can learn from lectures, but sitting at a lab bench with the cells in your hands gives you a really good glimpse into what a scientist’s life is like.”

The hands-on laboratory experience Guinard and his classmates gained was part of a new curriculum developed by experts at the School of Medicine that is designed to transform students with little or no scientific background into well-trained potential workers fluent in the science, ethics and legal aspects of stem cell biology.

“We wanted to know whether we could fully immerse the students in stem cell research in a way that integrated biology with practical instruction like lab work, while also talking about the ethical and legal dimensions of what they were doing,” said bioethicist and course designer Christopher Scott. “I think we demonstrated that you can design a course that contains both hard science and the humanities that will give students practical skills they can use in a future career.”

The class, Medicine 83Q, was called “Ethical, Legal and Social Dimensions of Stem Cell Research” and was offered by the Office of the Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education as one of Stanford’s Introductory Studies for freshman and sophomores. Scott, who directs the medical school’s Program on Stem Cells in Society, received $500,000 from the Course, Curriculum and Laboratory Improvement program of the National Science Foundation in 2009 to design the curriculum as part of his grant, “Workforce training for stem cell research.”

The curriculum will eventually be targeted to a slightly older group of students: those who have finished their bachelor degrees in a biology or non-biology-related science field and who want to gain an understanding of the basic biology of stem cells and how to work with them in a laboratory. But Scott and other stem cell researchers involved in the class first wanted to try out the program close to home, and Stanford undergraduates were the ideal test subjects.

In addition to Stanford, the curriculum was also piloted at City College of San Francisco, San Francisco State University and Middlesex Community College in Massachusetts.

The Stanford course was unusual because it incorporated a laboratory component in which the students each used the human embryonic stem cell line H9 to differentiate them into beating heart cells. When they got back to the classroom, they discussed not only the scientific reasons why the stem cells had differentiated into particular cell types, but also when and how the H9 cell line was derived, how its federal funding status has varied during the past several years and ethical considerations surrounding how consent was obtained from the individuals who donated the embryos from which stem cell lines are created.

“Most of us came in with an interest in stem cells, but didn’t know much about them,” said freshman bioengineering major Shaheen Jeeawoody. “By the end of the class, I had learned exactly what they are. And the ethics and policy debates encouraged us to see the issues surrounding human stem cell research from a variety of perspectives.”

“It’s really important for stem cell researchers to be aware of the history of the stem cell research, the legal policies that govern it, and what various advocacy groups represent,” said postdoctoral scholar Dritan Agalliu, PhD, who designed much of the course curriculum and will take a position as an assistant professor at the University of California-Irvine in the fall. “But many scientists are quite ‘iffy’ about these issues because we don’t really receive that in our standard scientific training.”

Agalliu and Scott employed novel educational concepts to teach complex science to the undergraduates, most of whom had only a high-school biology background.

“Traditionally you build lectures around what you want to teach to the students,” said Agalliu, who worked together with former Stanford postdoctoral scholar Tyler Cutforth, PhD, and Stanford alumni science educator Nicole Holthuis, PhD, to put together a series of lectures and activities using an educational concept called backward design. “In backward design,” said Agalliu, “you ask yourself what the student wants and needs to learn about a specific topic, and tailor the course around that to ensure that the content taught remains focused and organized. This promotes a better understanding for students”

As a result, the stem cell course did not spend a lot of time teaching the basics of developmental biology. “Instead,” said Agalliu, “we tried to ensure the students had a basic understanding of key concepts of stem cell biology, like what makes a cell a stem cell, how to compare and contrast different types of stem cells or differentiate them into particular cell types. During this process, lots of themes emerged that the students and lecturers followed through subsequent classes.”

Scott said the team also conducted formative assessments to spot-check the students’ understanding of concepts through discussion and questioning rather than through tests or grades. “If we found a problem, we could adjust our next session to cover the topics again and make sure they understood before moving on,” Scott said. “This was new to me, since I’m really a ‘stand up and lecture’ kind of guy.”

The students seem to have benefited from the teaching and experiments of Scott, Agalliu, Cutforth, Holthuis and human embryonic stem cell laboratory experts Cynthia Klein and Vittorio Sebastiano, PhD.

“Although I knew a little about stem cells, I didn’t realize the richness of stem cell research,” said Guinard, “or how we can take an adult skin cell and reprogram it into a stem cell.” And Jeeawoody said she found it interesting how much there still is to learn about human stem cells in the lab. “One of the things that really struck me," she said, “was that I didn’t realize it was so difficult to create other cells from ES cells, and how little we know in terms of what factors to add, and when.”

Scott said he is encouraged by how the Stanford undergraduates responded to the course. “In the past,” he said, “I’ve taught courses where it’s been obvious by looking at the grades on the final exam that the students just didn’t follow the material. That was so depressing. I felt like I was failing as a teacher. I wanted a new way of teaching that could really send students away with the knowledge they needed.”

Stanford Medicine integrates research, medical education and health care at its three institutions - Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford Health Care (formerly Stanford Hospital & Clinics), and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford. For more information, please visit the Office of Communication & Public Affairs site at

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