Issues Magazine

Scientists, Students and Stem Cells

By Aimee Sanderson

Aimee Sanderson explains the genesis of the Stem Cell Channel and the importance of informed public opinion on stem cells.

A simple Google search on “stem cells” will quickly give you a hefty 17,400,000 hits. The first listings are pages of educational text outlining the ability of stem cells to transform into any cell type, and their potential to one day cure debilitating diseases. In contrast, sponsored advertisements appear promising that you can “be 20 years younger and more healthy with natural Swiss Stem Cell Therapy” and the tantalising “Treating Man’s Most Devastating Diseases! Taking Patients Now”.

How can students begin to sort out the facts and issues from the mass of other information available? In most cases it is likely they have been taught the basics but need additional help with their assignments.

The Australian Stem Cell Centre (ASCC) receives approximately 40–50 enquiries each month from the public. Topics range from careers, what stem cells can be used for, stem cell treatment and assignment questions, including “What colour is a stem cell?”, a valid query from a primary school student creating a poster.

In response to the growing number of students seeking information about stem cells for English, legal studies and biology, the Stem Cell Channel was developed by the ASCC Public Affairs Group. The Stem Cell Channel is a unique video format educational website exploring the many facets of stem cell research, and is designed specifically for senior secondary school students and teachers.

Legislation and Public Education

In 2002, after a highly emotive public debate and a rare conscience vote, two federal laws were enacted allowing embryonic stem cell research, under license, and banning cloning. This first Parliamentary debate on stem cell research in 2002 was one of the longest running – and some would say most hotly contested – in Australian history.

In 2005 these two pieces of legislation were reviewed by a Commonwealth Government-appointed committee. The report was named the Lockhart Review in honour of the chair of the panel, John Lockhart AO, QC.

Following another high profile public debate and conscience vote, in 2006 the legislation was amended to allow new technology known as therapeutic cloning to create stem cells, a first for Australia.

During these debates it was paramount to ensure that the Australian community and members of Parliament understood and approved of the compelling and complex questions that embryonic stem cells raised and the desire of many outstanding Australian scientists to solve them. Public education and engagement became a key role of the ASCC. The engagement program crossed a number of discrete and interconnected audiences including media, politicians, patients, industry, community, academia, students and the general public.

The ASCC believes public support for stem cell research can only be achieved with a genuine ongoing investment in quality public engagement and education. Public support itself is vital to the existence of a supportive regulatory environment, and the continued funding of stem cell research in Australia.

Public education in stem cell research also became a top priority for the Victorian Government in 2006 during the stem cell debate. The ASCC was already receiving enquiries and distributing educational material to schools; consequently, in 2007 the Victorian State Government gave a grant to the ASCC to develop an educational project that would specifically appeal to students and educators.

Presenting the Information

The first step of the project was to gain an understanding of the ways in which senior high school students prefer to learn and gather information. The ASCC considered a number of approaches including interactive DVDs, a short film, a paper-based package of information, a school outreach program and a web-enabled resource.

The ASCC found that the way students expect information has dramatically shifted. It has moved from a traditional textbook and assignment model to a more active model. The research suggested a strong preference for multimedia-oriented presentations, specifically web-enabled ones. The ASCC needed a medium that would provide students with a learning experience that was accurate, authoritative, visual, verbal, active and reflective, sequential and global.

After careful consideration the ASCC chose to present the information on an interactive website named the Stem Cell Channel (http://www.stemcellchannel.com.au), with a variety of short film clips. Each clip addresses a range of questions. The clips are grouped according to eight key topics: “What are Stem Cells?”, “Patients Discuss Stem Cells”, “The Scientists”, “Career Information”, “Therapeutic Cloning”, “The Ethics”, “How Can They be Used?” and “Legislation”. Some categories have up to 10 associated clips. Differing points of view within a category provide balance, particularly on ethical issues.

What to Include and What to Exclude?

The eight key topics were identified using existing student enquiries. The Public Affairs Group considered the frequency of common questions asked by students and applied their experience in public education to develop the eight key questions.

Experts were sourced from the ASCC and affiliated Australian stakeholder universities and institutes. Existing news clips of other experts already in the public domain were also used. The material is updated periodically, adding current topics, scientific advances and points of view yet to be covered.

Feedback from students also indicated that written resources were considered valuable. Although the site seeks to avoid PDF files and the need to download and read information, it is recognised that some students require more detailed information or would like referrals to more in-depth sites. To tackle this, the Stem Cell Channel also includes a “Resources” hexagon that includes fact sheets, links and images of stem cells.

Ask a Scientist

Education academics advised the ASCC to include an opportunity for students to provide feedback and to ask additional questions of a scientist. The “Ask a Scientist” section of the site is a popular feature, attracting a variety of questions. Questions are received by the webmaster and forwarded to a number of participating stem cell scientists who endeavour to answer the question within 24–48 hours.

Questions range in level of knowledge and topic. Queries have included:

  • Could you use stem cells to stop people dying of old age?
  • Could you please help me to understand why a stem cell can be used to develop into any cell in the body: does it have something to do with the DNA?
  • Why are some people against this type of research?
  • How does Australia rate against the rest of the world in this field?
  • What types of stem cell research are currently allowed in Australia? Where is the Civil Law’s stance?

Often students need someone to interview for a school assignment. The ASCC has provided scientists and experts to discuss their questions and provide opinions. This allows the students the opportunity to learn while they are interviewing. Students have provided feedback that having all the information available in one place – with various points of view offered – is invaluable.

Feedback

The ASCC tested the initial stages of the website on senior secondary school students in two rural locations. Both schools had a strong focus on science and relied heavily on web resources due to their remote locations in Australia. The feedback was very positive, with all students awarding the site a high rating on content, navigation, attractiveness and authority.

… the videos make a distinctive, flamboyant and easy way to access information. – Student 3.

The use of professional scientists and the opportunity to contact these people adds a level of credibility and expertise, which is very important in such a debatable, scientific topic. – Student 4.

The way the information is presented, in videos, makes it easier to find the information and to find answers to questions that one starts to ask. It is less time consuming and more interesting to watch than to read a lot of worded [sic] information. – Student 7

Marketing and Promotion

The Australian Science Teachers Association is a key focus for the marketing and promotion of the web site. ASCC was invited to write a feature article on stem cell research for The Journal of the Australian Science Teachers Association in March 2008. The centre introduced the first advertising for the Stem Cell Channel in this edition.

Following the official launch of the Stem Cell Channel at BIO2008 in San Diego, the website received supportive publicity in The Australian and various other publications, mostly electronic.

The ASCC also attended and exhibited the Stem Cell Channel at the annual conference of the Australian Science Teachers Association. The conference has a 4500-strong attendance made up primarily of science educators and educational institute representatives. The ASCC demonstrated the usability of the website at the conference and provided educational material for the classroom, continuing their relationship with this key group.

Evaluation

It is crucial for the success of the Stem Cell Channel to stay current and useful for students and educators. The site will be formally evaluated within 12–18 months following its launch in 2008; however, constant feedback and monitoring is undertaken.

The ASCC will also seek detailed feedback from a number of secondary schools and teachers who have used the site within the curriculum. Evaluation will inform the future development of the site.

Future Directions

The site will always be dominated by the latest research and news on stem cell research. After the recent discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells, the site was updated with a fact sheet on the topic, and will soon feature interviews with scientists working with the cells in Australia.

A controversial and confusing topic currently in the media is stem cell tourism – where a patient chooses to travel to another country, often because the treatment has not been proven safe of effective in the patient’s home country. This is a cause for concern for the scientific and medical communities alike.

This year the Stem Cell Channel will grow to include clips of scientists and ethicists discussing their views on stem cell tourism. To balance the debate the site will also feature a patient who has travelled overseas to recount their choices and experiences. It will also include footage of patients and doctors within Australia who have successfully used stem cells to assist in the recovery of blood cancer patients. This will allow people to see the practical side of stem cell therapy, which is occurring every day.

The ASCC feels that open public debate is essential for stem cell research and encourages it. Stem cell research naturally raises a variety of questions, and only when the public are informed and educated will they be able to separate the facts from the fiction, and effectively debate ethical issues.

Feedback on the Stem Cell Channel can be sent to info@stemcellcentre.edu.au