UW News

May 25, 2001

Local high school students will dramatize genetic choices

A high school student struggles to decide whether to undergo genetic testing for a gene that causes blindness. This dilemma, presented in a play called The Cutting Edge, will be viewed by local high school students and teachers at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, May 30, at the Shoreline Center.

The play is sponsored by the GENETICS Project and the High School Human Genome Program, two education outreach programs in the University of Washington’s Department of Molecular Biotechnology.

The play challenges the audience — teachers and students who have previously participated in the outreach programs — to consider the ramifications of genetic testing.

The play will be performed by students in a Mercer Island High School biology class. Following the play, there will be a question and answer session with a geneticist and a genetic counselor.

“In a society where the Human Genome Project, global warming, and diminishing natural resources are hot political topics, we can no longer delegate the understanding of scientific issues to ivory tower scientists,” says Dr. Maureen Munn, director of the two outreach programs. Munn said students will need some understanding of genetic issues because they may one day face important decisions about them — much as the main character in the play does.

The two outreach programs provide professional development to teachers in the areas of biotechnology and genetics, and always include training in bioethical decision-making. The GENETICS Project targets teachers from kindergarten through 12th grade and provides them with age-appropriate genetics activities that meet national and state science education standards. The High School Human Genome Program allows teachers and their students to sequence DNA in their own classrooms and contribute their data to the international Human Genome Project. This year, the students are sequencing a gene involved in nicotine addiction.

Munn has long wanted to stage a theatrical production about genetic issues, because theater can be used to create interest and discussion: “The power of this play is its ability to create a scene that is compelling, realistic, and dramatic, so viewers are engaged in trying to understand the relevant genetic issues.”

The play also had an impact on the Mercer Island High School students who are performing, says their teacher, MaryMargaret Welch. “I think the kids realized the importance of having scientific knowledge and skills to analyze, evaluate, and make independent judgements and decisions about science-related issues.”

Tickets for the play were distributed to local high schools. The play is not open to the general public.

The Cutting Edge presents genetic testing through the eyes of several high school students. Casey is considering being tested for the (imaginary) Optical Severance 21 gene, which has already caused her younger sister, Gail, to go blind. Casey is torn by opposing viewpoints. Casey’s boyfriend, Tony, wants to be sure that their future children will not inherit OP21. Casey’s sister, Gail, thinks genetic testing is a condemnation of her own condition. Casey must decide whether she will be tested. Several comic interludes discuss other controversial issues raised by the Human Genome Project and modern genetic research.

The play was written by Maryland playwright Jason Kravits in conjunction with Dr. Paula Gregory, who at that time was the education chief of the National Institutes of Health.

Note: A list of participating schools and school districts follows.

Members of the media interested in covering the play may obtain complimentary tickets on the evening of the play at the Shoreline Center, 18560 1st Avenue NE, Shoreline.

High Schools and Districts of Participating Teachers and Students

Seattle School District
Rainier Beach
Chief Sealth
West Seattle
Nathan Hale

Mercer Island School District
Mercer Island

Shoreline School District

Northshore School District

Lake Washington School District
Lake Washington

North Kitsap School District
North Kitsap

Marysville School District
Marysville Pilchuck

Vashon Island School District
Vashon Island

University Place School District

Centralia School District

Port Angeles School District
Port Angeles

Bellevue School District

North Mason School District
North Mason

Independent Schools
The Bush School
Seattle Hebrew