Xavier Magazine

Better Biology: Beating Cancer

Cancer sucks. So Jennifer Sunderman Broo is doing something about it.

Rather than teaching the same old boring curriculum about cells, the biology teacher at St. Ursula Academy in Cincinnati developed her own curriculum that teaches her students about the cell cycle by studying cancer cells and the havoc they wreak.

“The War of the 21st Century: The Cell Cycle, Cancer and Clinical Trials” is a two-week unit of seven lessons aimed at challenging the way her students think about cancer. “This actually walks students through the history of cancer,” says Broo, who earned an MEd in 2006. “They get a better idea of the cell cycle and how genes actually influence it.”

Broo wrote the curriculum while taking a summer workshop and internship at the University of Florida in 2012, doing research and staring at leukemia cells in a petri dish. She and a fellow intern, another high-school science teacher, co-wrote the curriculum based on their findings.

“We were trying new combinations of drugs to treat leukemia cells, and our task was to design a lesson plan that brought life science into classrooms,” Broo says. “We got carried away and developed seven plans that fit into any bio teacher’s curriculum of the cell cycle.”

Broo and her partner presented the new curriculum at the National Association of Biology Teachers conference in November, and the university posted a free version of it on its website. She incorporated it in her sophomore biology class at St. Ursula, where she started teaching last fall after moving back to Cincinnati.

“Cancer is becoming really common,” she says. “One of the first questions I ask my students is how many know someone with cancer. All raise their hands, and about two-thirds do when I ask how many have had family members with cancer.”

Students learn about clinical trials, even conducting their own research, and can view the websites of ongoing trials. It can be a real surprise for some.

“Students are horrified that some people are not getting helped by these trials,” Broo says. “One of the big shifts in science education is to focus on teaching science through real life examples. This unit emphasizes that science is a collaborative effort of scientists and patients all working together to find a cure for cancer.”

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