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J. Maes, G. Gheysen, M. Valcke

Ghent University (BELGIUM)
The objective of this study was to analyse students’ knowledge about biotechnology and genetics in three different age groups to map their progress and to evaluate the related Flemish biology curriculum. Biotechnology and genetic engineering are rapidly evolving domains in science and currently have a major impact on our daily lives. Therefore science education is expected to promote scientific literacy to develop active citizenship in students by including new technological advances in science curricula. When graduating from secondary school, students should be able to make informed decisions, e.g., about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). It is acknowledged that European citizens’ attitude toward GMOs is rather negative, especially toward GM food crops. Importantly, literature suggests that the latter knowledge is an important determinant of people’s perception of risks and benefits, which in turn has an influence on their attitude towards GMOs. Beside the scientific component, also the social aspects of controversial subjects like GMOs should be discussed in class to provide students with a broad knowledge base.

A large-scale cross-sectional study was set up in 2013 to evaluate the advancements in knowledge on biotechnology and GMO-related topics of secondary school students in Flanders, the Dutch speaking part of Belgium. Important scientific research on GMOs has been done in this region, but still no GM crops are commercially grown. Objective (or measured) and subjective (or perceived) knowledge tests as well as the Food Neophobia scale (FNS, “fear” to try new foods) were presented to three different age groups. Hundred twenty-six different schools across Flanders participated in this study. The results are based on data from 4002 secondary school students from the second, fourth and sixth year. The latter helps to identify possible changes over time.

The students’ objective knowledge score was measured with true/false statements and test items related to popular misconceptions about biotechnology. Before students actually study biotechnology in school, they already absorbed related information from their environment; e.g., via the media or via family. This information is often incorrect, incomplete or emotional and results in misconceptions.

The results invoke a clear discussion. Students’ objective knowledge levels were poor and only gradually improve over time. Their subjective knowledge score was average but seems to evolve in such a way they e.g., are more capable to explain what GMOs are. Their FNS score indicated they are neither afraid nor eager to try food they are not familiar with. The FNS score significantly decreased over time.

The research findings suggest that many misconceptions about genetics and biotechnology are not tackled by education. Students lack important knowledge when graduating secondary school, which makes it difficult to develop a clear understanding of biotechnology in society. Teachers should help students to improve and apply their knowledge to their daily lives and help them to participate in the ongoing socio-scientific debate about GMOs in our food.