Cellular and Molecular Biology: Cancer

Kelly Wentz Hunter, Assistant Professor, Biology, Roosevelt University

A 2009 SENCER Model

SENCER Model Course LogoCellular and molecular biology is a core curriculum course for biology majors at Roosevelt University serving as a foundation for the upper-level majors’ courses. Previously this course has been taught as a traditional, content-driven science course. This course has been redesigned during the last several years to connect the concepts of cellular and molecular biology to complex diseases using the uniting theme of cancer. Each unit is contrasted with how alterations lead to the development of cancer. Students have weekly assignments integrating class discussions on cell and molecular processes with the development of cancer. The course also contains a cancer centered, civic engagement project component. Assessment is completed using both pre- and post-SENCER Student Assessment of Learning Gains instruments.

The learning objectives of this course for the student are:

  • Describe and analyze the biological function of inorganic and organic compounds based on chemical structure
  • Explain the properties of enzymes and other biological catalysis
  • Distinguish between prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells
  • Identify major components of the cell and explain how they are organized and what are their functions
  • Differentiate between replication, transcription and translation products
  • Compare the function of transcription and translation as well as the factors that modulate both processes
  • Describe the structural components of viruses
  • Distinguish between reproductive cycles of different classes of viruses
  • Describe the structure of a bacterial chromosome
  • Compare the processes of transformation, transduction, and conjugation
  • Construct a bacterial operon explaining the function of its components
  • Compare the structure and organization of prokaryotic and eukaryotic genomes
  • Explain the importance of histones and chromatin condensation
  • Describe the genomic organization at the DNA level
  • Explain how cancer cells differ from non-cancer cells
  • Compare the genomes and cell expression profiles of normal and cancer cells
  • Analyze the effects of mutations on tumor suppressor and proto-oncogenes
  • Predict a person’s predisposition to certain cancers based on inherited alleles
  • Assess the benefits and dangers of medical advances as they affect daily lives
  • Communicate effectively about molecular biology, both verbally and in lab and class reports

Linking Science and Social Issues

Introduction to cellular and molecular biology
Taught through cancer statistics and malfunction of organisms at the cellular and molecular level leading to pathology

Macromolecules [carbohydrates, protein, lipids, nucleic acids] Taught through nutritional aspects of cancer, role of diet, obesity, and heredity in relationship to cancer risk

Cellular components
Taught through cellular changes common to cancer cell morphology and characteristics

Cellular membranes; Fluid mosaic model
Taught through alteration of cell adhesion and integral proteins in cancer cells

Central dogma: DNA-RNA-Protein
Taught through gene mutations and repair in cancer, changes in gene expression [mRNA and protein] in cancer

Cellular signaling and communication; Reception, transduction and cell response
Taught through abnormalities in cell signaling leading to cancer progression, alterations in receptor location, structure, abundance and function, changes in protein effectors and transduction pathways, abnormal cellular response in cancer cells

Virus structure, reproduction and function
Taught through viral role in cancer; HPV, HIV, HTLV, HHV risk and mechanisms of action leading to cellular progression to cancer phenotypes

Eukaryotic genes and gene expression
Taught through proto-oncogenes and tumor suppressors role in cancer progression

Cellular respiration and fermentation
Taught through decrease in the rate of oxidative phosphorylation in cancer cells with corresponding increase in fermentation, role of angiogenesis and increased blood supply to tumors in cancer progression

The Course

A commitment to social justice has been a hallmark of Roosevelt University [RU] since its founding in 1945. The Mansfield Institute for Social Justice was created in 1999, to further this mission by the development of programs focused on social justice issues. To this end, RU has been successful integrating social justice themes throughout courses in several disciplines, especially the humanities. More challenging has been the inclusion of such themes in core science courses, specifically in the biological sciences.

With regard to this mission, the curriculum of a core course, Biology 301: Cellular and Molecular Biology, was redesigned to integrate issues of civil engagement and responsibility. Specifically this redesigned course included cancer awareness, advocacy and critical thinking activities. The goals of the new curriculum are: (1) to improve student learning, interest and retention in molecular and cellular biology, and (2) to increase student’s sense of civic engagement and appreciation of the social relevance of science through disease, specifically cancer.

Evaluating Learning

Students are assessed through weekly written assignments, quizzes, and exams. Written assignments cover both basic content as well as critical thinking problems in relationship to cancer. Quizzes are multiple choice. Exams are short answer and essay in style and the final is a comprehensive take home exam that evaluates students on their ability to apply the knowledge they have gained during the semester in ‘real life’ questions. In addition, evaluations of the pedagogy are assessed through Roosevelt University student assessment surveys as well as SENCER-SALG pre and post surveys.

Background and Context

This course was first designed after I attended the Sencer Summer Institute in 2006. I attended the institute a few weeks before I began my position at Roosevelt University. After attending some general information sessions on the SENCER technique, I decided to redesign the Cellular and Molecular Biology core curriculum to include a social and health issue, mainly cancer. Using cancer as a central theme, basic cellular and molecular biology concepts can be compared to a pathological disease. The first iteration of the course was taught in Fall 2006. This offering related the topics of cellular and molecular biology to cancer but did not require any civic engagement activities or connections. The second offering of the course required all students to complete a civic engagement or advocacy project related to cancer for course credit. The activities the students chose were left up to them. The class has been taught a total of 6 times [offered each Fall and Spring]using the theme of cancer and 5 times with a civic engagement requirement. Future offerings of the course will include a more structured service learning project in coordination with the Chicago chapter of the American Cancer Society and their Healthy Me initiative.

This course is the last in the 4 course core curriculum for biology majors. A large majority of our students, including transfer students, complete this course at Roosevelt. This course is the prerequisite for most of the advanced courses in our department.

Related Resources

This class has been part of a larger curriculum review to incorporate more civic engagement and societal issues into the curriculum, especially our core courses. The first course in our core, Science as a Way of Knowing also includes such activities. In addition, a number of our upper level courses are also including such activities in their curriculum.

SENCER-SALG data has been collected for all semesters in which this course has been taught as well as a previous semester before redesign. This data is currently being compiled for a publication.

The format and assessment of this course has been presented at SENCER Summer Institute 2007, Developing a Good Heart: First Summit on Social Justice in STEM 2009, and Undergraduate Biology Education: Vision and Change 2009.