Getting the Kids Ready for the Competition: STEM Education – When the Predator Becomes the Prey

Contagion isn’t on the Oscar list, but it’s a great movie. Bill Moyers discussed the movie in his February, 26, 2012 broadcast, Are Immunization Exemptions Fair to Us All?. The program explores the distrust many parents have for science, resulting in the expanding religious exemptions granted by states to parents who don’t want their children vaccinated. Not only are states making exemptions easier, but the distrust, as reported by CBS, is encouraging an increasing number of parent to fake religious claims to avoid vaccines. The problem becomes critical when the percentage of the population not vaccinated becomes so large all of us suffer, as disease is passed on by those not vaccinated. Moyers reports:

A certain number of any population group needs to have been vaccinated to maintain the ability of the whole population — “the herd” — to resist the spread of a disease. Ms. Anderson offers the example of what in my day was called “the German measles” — rubella. All it takes are five unvaccinated kids in a class of 25 for the herd immunity to break down, creating an opportunity for the disease to spread to younger siblings and to other medically vulnerable people who can’t be vaccinated. If you were traveling to Europe between 2009 and 2011, you may remember warnings about the huge outbreak of measles there — brought on by a “failure to vaccinate susceptible populations.”

As scary as our growing failure to vaccinate all of the “herd” is, there is another, far more severe problem growing out of a deaf ear we seem to have for the findings and work of science.

For man, God’s ultimate predator – the Master of the Universe – is now prey for very deadly, unrelenting predators: tiny, almost invisible, microbes – bacteria loaded with drug-resistant killer diseases.

A new “totally drug resistant” tuberculosis strain was reported in India this January. A “TB pandemic” sweeping Europe was reported last fall. Then there’s Africa, where the Guardian Global Development Network published its report February 9, 2012, Africa:Highest Ever Levels of Multi-Drug-Resistant TB Revealed.

But there’s more, as reported by NPR:

A study in the journal mBio, published by the American Society for Microbiology, shows how an antibiotic-susceptible staph germ passed from humans into pigs, where it became resistant to the antibiotics tetracycline and methicillin. And then the antibiotic-resistant staph learned to jump back into humans. “It’s like watching the birth of a superbug,” says Lance Price of the Translational Genomics Research Institute, or TGen, in Flagstaff, Ariz.

We could also examine equally sobering reports about Malaria or HIV and a host of other drug-resistant diseases, but the Associated Press summary makes the point:

Forty years ago, the world thought it had conquered TB and any number of other diseases through the new wonder drugs: antibiotics. U.S. Surgeon General William H. Stewart announced it was “time to close the book on infectious diseases and declare the war against pestilence won.” Today, all the leading killer infectious diseases on the planet — TB, malaria and HIV among them — are mutating at an alarming rate, hitchhiking their way in and out of countries. The reason: overuse and misuse of the very drugs that were supposed to save us.

With worldwide travel as it is today, moving a mutated disease from one country to another on a crowded airplane takes but a matter of days or minutes – as the well-crafted script for Contagion so clearly illustrates. So none of us are really “safe” from contagion.

But, before we dig into disease “mutation,” and what we can do about it, let us switch gears for a moment and focus on education.

In our last blog about prison privatization, we touched on our diminished, worldwide standing in education. We are out of the running when compared to other countries.

Our nonperformance in education, and stymied economy, have caused our politicians to focus on “STEM” education – science, technology, engineering and math. Propping up college STEM education, the experts say, will help our young graduates find jobs. As Florida’s Governor Scott put it:

I want to spend our money getting people science, technology, engineering and math degrees. That’s what our kids need to focus all of their time and attention on: Those type of degrees that when they get out of school, they can get a job.

Now, how does the STEM educational objective tie into the legislative efforts around our country? There seems to be a roadblock, a significant disagreement about what are, or are not, the appropriate science subjects to include in STEM education.

Conservative legislators around our country are currently introducing legislation to require teaching of creationism while pooh-poohing evolution as an unproved theory. You can get an update from the National Center for Science Education, about the efforts of Oklahoma, Missouri, Alabama, Indiana, and other states. And you can check out the Thomas B. Fordham Institute report, “The State of State Science Standards 2012“ [you can download]:

While many states are handling evolution better today than in the past, anti-evolution pressures continue to threaten state science standards,” the Fordham reviewers observe, citing in particular the “infamous Science Education Act” enacted in Louisiana in 2008. “Though the act is a free-standing statute with no direct link to the Pelican State’s academic standards, it does damage by allowing for the introduction of creationist teaching supplements — thereby affecting classroom instruction without explicitly altering the state’s standards. … This marks a subtle but important victory for creationists: Even states with thorough and appropriate coverage of evolution (e.g., Massachusetts, Utah, and Washington) shy away from linking the controversial term with ourselves. Only four states — Florida, New Hampshire, Iowa, and Rhode Island — openly embrace human evolution in their current science standards.

MSNBC reported that 4 out of 10 Americans believe in creationism, and doubt evolution:

Those with less education were more likely to hold a creationist view that God created life thousands of years ago, while college graduates were more likely to hold one of the two viewpoints involving evolution. … A significantly higher percentage of Republicans indicated a creationist view of human origins, which Gallup experts say reflects in part the strong relationship between religion and politics in contemporary America.

Contrary to the position of the Pope’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which finds overwhelming evidence in favor of evolution, and an absence of fundamental conflict between evolutionary science and Christianity, a recent poll of Protestant pastors in the United States “overwhelmingly believe that God did not use evolution to create humans and think Adam and Eve were literal people.”

In contrast, the Vatican‘s October 31, 2008 plenary session on evolution was summarized by Nobel laureate Christian de Duve:

The participants unanimously accepted as indisputable the affirmation that the Universe, as well as life within it, are the products of long evolutionary histories,” noting that there was also wide agreement among the participants on the common ancestry of life on earth. “Evolution,” he added, “has acquired the status of established fact. In the words of His Holiness John Paul II, it is ‘more than a hypothesis’.” The centrality of natural selection to evolution was also recognized, although de Duve acknowledged “the need to refine some of the conceptual bases” of natural selection “in the light of recent findings.” On the other hand, no one, at least among the scientists, defended the recently advocated theory of ‘intelligent design’

Horse Breeding - Using Evolution as a Tool

A few years ago, I visited a horse breeder friend of mine, a religious fundamentalist who didn’t take to evolution. For whatever reason, he didn’t think that horse breeding, which combines horse DNA and genes from two horses to produce a sleeker stallion or mare, was simply the speedy and intentional use of nature’s tools of evolution. There’s an old saying – “Each of us are entitled to our beliefs, but not our facts.” I saw no reason to debate his beliefs. The facts spoke for themselves.

However, maybe the freedom we offer a priori beliefs that are not grounded in factual evidence has limits. Bill Moyers raised that question when it comes to vaccinations. Do we have the freedom not to get vaccinated if the exercise of our freedom leads to the death or severe illness of others?

But, for the moment, let’s set aside any concern we may have about fairness. Let’s focus on the tools we need for survival against predatory attacks by diseased-generating microbe mutations that no longer fall dead when we blunt them with our antibiotics and antivirals.

What is a “mutation?” Technically, it’s the “changing of the structure of a gene, resulting in a variant form that may be transmitted to subsequent generations, caused by the alteration of single base units in DNA, or the deletion, insertion, or rearrangement of larger sections of genes or chromosomes.” The microbe, like all of life, has built-in intelligence. It‘s intelligence causes it to mutate to protect itself. That’s what evolution is – the adoption of life to better deal with its environment, thus, providing more opportunities for its offspring. The science has been best articulated by Darwin, but the idea behind the science comes from the early Greeks.

It doesn’t take millions or thousands of years for microbes to mutate, or evolve, as it does with most of life. Microbes are very short-lived, and their clan goes through evolutionary cycles very fast and very frequently. But the key point is that challenged microbes mutate and evolve and fight off antibiotics. Steven Newton, Programs and Policy Director for the National Center for Science Education, wrote an article in honor of the 201st birthday of Charles Darwin titled “Five Reasons Why Evolution is Important.” His fourth point, Antibiotic Resistance:

Penicillin was once a “miracle” drug, but today medical professionals find a host of diseases–from staph infections to tuberculosis–evolving resistance to antibiotics.The origin of antibiotic-resistant organisms is a textbook example of natural selection. Patients infected with a diverse population of bacteria are given an antibiotic that wipes out almost all the bacteria. If they start to feel better and do not finish the full course of antibiotics, what is left behind are those bacteria most resistant to the drug. Those survivors then become the nucleus of a new, resistant population. Understanding this evolutionary process is an important part of modern public health.

So lets pretend. This weekend you return on an overnight business flight from India. You feel lousy. You have a fever. You can’t stop coughing. You’re weak. Your significant other takes you to the emergency room. The doctor takes a culture. It’s the new strand of drug resistant tuberculosis. A mutation that fights off known drugs. You can die.

You’re referred to an infectious disease physician.

You are no longer the predator; you are the prey.

What sort of evolutionary science should be included in your infectious disease physician’s STEM education?

Isn’t that where our schools should be directing our young?

[If you can, watch the PBS 8-hour series, Evolution. In particular “The Evolutionary Arms Race” and “What About God?” The program has been banned from some schools as being contrary to religious beliefs.]

[Watch Stephen Colbert’s Interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson . When you bring up the site, click on the arrow near the top to take you to the interview – about an hour.]

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4 Comments on "Getting the Kids Ready for the Competition: STEM Education – When the Predator Becomes the Prey"

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Hi Dick – Will see if I can get the documentary on Netflix; if not, I bet I can stream it from PBS. Would love to watch Evolution with my family. I have several friends who have not vaccinated their children because they believe that the drug companies put “other stuff” – whatever that is – in the vaccine that is highly detrimental to humans. Lots of people seem to believe this, and I dont know where the idea originated. (I do remember reading about some sort of faked study that linked vaccines with autism, and it was thought credible… Read more »
Dick: Indeed. This is another topic that I have been interested in for a long time. I lived in Guatemala in the 1970s; cared for malnourished Mayan infants and adults with [unknown] diseases and parasites. I saw a lot of things that I could never have seen in the US. When the “lets not vaccinate” fad came about here, I fought it but found that those who embrace it do it with religious fervor! The distrust of government has fueled it. You are so right and the subject of your article so important. It is the basis of those several… Read more »

This is a very scarey topic. Herd immunity is crucial. Hannah

An important subject once again, Dick. All this talk of “freedom” does not apply when it comes to the well-being of the masses. America, perhaps other countries as well, should stop pussy-footing around when it comes to immunization or a pandemic may come along one day and wipe us out.