JITE v35n4 - On Teaching Biotechnology in Kentucky

Volume 35, Number 4
Summer 1998

On Teaching Biotechnology in Kentucky

Dan C. Brown
Murray State University
Michael C. Kemp
Murray State University
Jennifer Hall
Clark County Middle School

Since 1991, when Savage and Sterry first identified bio-related technology as a unique area of technology that should be considered as one of the four major technological content areas, attention has been focused on the need to expand and enhance opportunities for middle school and/or high school students to study biotechnology. The Kentucky Council of Industrial Teacher Education ( 1992 ) also included biotechnology (along with communication, production, & transportation technologies) as a key content component for technology education programs. The Council also recommended that technology education should be included as an integral component of comprehensive school programs.

The Kentucky State Board of Education later identified bio-related systems as a recommended high school technology education course ( Brown & Prewitt, 1996 ). In spite of this support for including biotechnology instruction as a component of the curricula offerings in technology education, a recent survey of technology education teachers in Kentucky found that less than 6% of responding high school teachers offered bio-related systems technology education courses at their schools ( Brown, Justice, & Lacy, 1997 ). Support for including biotechnology in the curricula at the high school level is also present in the National Science Education Standards ( National Research Council, 1996 ), Content Standard E, which states that in all areas of science, including life science, students in grades 9-12 should experience activities that "develop abilities in technological design and understanding about the relationship between science and technology" ( p. 190 ). This sustained emphasis on the need to study the integration of biology and technology raises some interesting questions about how the implementation of biotechnology is progressing as well as what teachers believe must occur in order to facilitate this type of programmatic change. A rather extensive and growing body of well-developed curricula, focused on communication, production, and transportation, has been developed for technology education. While some texts and instructional modules in the bio-related technologies have been developed, relatively little introductory level curriculum has been designed to help technology education teachers and students fully understand the bio- related technologies. While the bio-related technology content area has been conceptualized as a content area, limited work has been done to help classroom teachers in implementing inquiry-based instruction of these concepts into the daily classroom routine.

Literature Review

The literature review for this study was guided by the following questions. How are biotechnology and bio-related technology currently defined? What attempts have been made to organize biotechnology content to facilitate development of instruction? What instructional delivery models have been previously described?

Defining Terms

Before biotechnology can be fully integrated into the secondary school classroom, educators must achieve a clear understanding of how terms such as bio-related technology and biotechnology are defined. While definitions appear to be converging, several have been proposed and consensus has not yet been achieved. Savage and Sterry ( 1991 ) defined the term bio-related technology as applying "biological organisms to make or modify products" ( p. 17 ). Shortly thereafter, at least one author proposed broadening the definition of biotechnology to include applying engineering and science to living organisms to improve quality of life ( Tomal, 1992, 1993 ). This definition extends the meaning to include innovations such as heart valves, pacemakers, and artificial joints. The Committee on Fundamental Science ( 1995, p. 1 ) has defined biotechnology as "a powerful set of tools that employ living organisms or parts of organisms to make or modify products, improve plants or animals, or develop microorganisms for specific uses." Wells ( 1995 ) has traced the development of this definition to the Office of Technology Assessment reports ( 1988 & 1991 ) and Biotechnology for the 21st Century: Realizing the Promise reports ( 1992 & 1993 ). In perhaps its broadest sense, biotechnology has been defined as "using living organisms or their products for commercial purposes" ( North Central Regional Extension, Iowa State University, 1996, p. 1 ). Others have proposed more restricted definitions of biotechnology such as limiting it to manipulating and using living organisms at the molecular or DNA level ( Ahmed, 1996 ; North Central Regional Extension, Iowa State University, 1996 ).

Wells specifically rejected the idea that artificial body parts and prostheses should be included in the definition of biotechnology. Based on this conclusion, and given the similarities between the definition proposed by Savage and Sterry and the one proposed by the Committee on Fundamental Science, the researchers used the Committee's definition. It is also important to note that the terms biotechnology and bio-related technologies are used interchangeably throughout this study.

Content Organizers

Just as there has been diversity in the definitions of biotechnology, content organization schemes have also been diverse. In 1990, Savage recommended seven major areas including (a) bioengineering, (b) health care, (c) cultivation of plants and animals, (d) fuel and chemical production, (e) waste management and treatment, (f) materials applications, and (g) regulation and safety as organizers that can be used to understand and study the field of biotechnology. Correspondingly, McInerney ( 1990 ) suggested microbiology, molecular biology, genetics, biochemistry, engineering, and cell biology as themes or concepts appropriate for biotechnology education. Then in 1991, Savage and Sterry proposed a modification of Savage's earlier work, conceptualizing bio-related technology in terms of processes: propagating, growing, maintaining, harvesting, adapting, treating, and converting.

A survey of Outstanding Biology Teacher Award winners identified content areas for high school biotechnology, structured along more traditional science content and career path lines. These included areas such as bioethics, biotechnology in agriculture, environmental science and industry, molecular biology of cancer, organismal biochemistry, microbiology, genetic engineering, human genetics and genomic library, molecular biology, and DNA fingerprinting ( Zeller, 1994 ). Wells ( 1995 ), using a similar approach, proposed a five-part structure including bioprocessing, foundations in biotechnology, genetic engineering, agriculture, and biochemistry. While some similarities clearly exist among the various organizational structures, consensus has not yet been achieved regarding the organizers that are most appropriate and useful to teachers and students.


Considerable discussion and debate have occurred in Kentucky related to developing biotechnology as a specific course. Some have supported the view that biotechnology instruction should be interdisciplinary in nature and that the content should be infused into a variety of course contexts. For example, Wells ( 1995 ) described biotechnology as a field that, due to its interdisciplinary nature, can be explored in a broad array of instructional contexts. From this perspective, throughout the entire biotechnology curricula development process, steps should be taken to assure that (a) the content is accurate and transferable across the curriculum and (b) terms and concepts presented are consistent with those used in the various biotechnology related professions. In an approach that aligns rather closely with typical technology education content, Tomal ( 1992 ) suggested an approach whereby biotechnology activities such as the design of components (e.g., artificial hearts and replacement bones) could be incorporated into classes on electricity/electronics, manufacturing and machine processes, graphics and computer-aided design technology, ceramics, and woodworking. It is useful to note that none of these sources have specifically suggested that biotechnology should be integrated across disciplines as diverse as science, agriculture, and technology education.

Research Questions

Four questions were developed to guide and provide focus for this study.

  1. What are teacher perceptions with regard to the need for biotechnology instruction?
  2. What are teacher perceptions concerning the most appropriate instructional techniques and methodologies for motivating students to want to learn more about biotechnology?
  3. What are content experts' opinions regarding the most appropriate sub-organizers to use when giving students an introductory overview of biotechnology?
  4. What support is most important to teachers who wish to see biotechnology instruction implemented or enhanced in their schools?


A panel of experts from the sciences, environmental education, environmental engineering, agriculture, and technology education was convened to (a) evaluate previously proposed content organizers and (b) recommend a single set that might be used as the starting point for this study. After results of the literature review had been discussed and compared against the broad range of applications in biotechnology, seven organizers were identified to be presented in the form of a survey to teachers for rating. As a part of the process, teachers were also invited to suggest alternative organizers. Two surveys were conducted. The first was used to assess (a) teacher, student, and school demographics; (b) current and potential needs for biotechnology curricula; and (c) teacher interests in specific content organizers, topics, transferable skills, and instructional design elements. The second questionnaire was designed to clarify and expand responses to selected questions that emerged from the first survey. The second questionnaire was only sent to respondents of the first questionnaire and was designed to examine potential teacher types, course structure, and teacher support needs. Seven hundred fifty surveys were evenly divided among agriculture, science, and technology education teachers randomly selected from lists of teachers across Kentucky. The rationale for including agriculture, science, and technology teachers was because these are the primary disciplines that are most directly interested in expanding instruction in biotechnology.

After the initial round of mailings, a follow-up questionnaire was mailed to non- respondents. Usable surveys were received from 187 teachers. Personal contact follow-up with selected non-respondents was conducted in order to investigate reasons why surveys had not been returned. The primary factors included lack of time due to heavy teaching loads as well as some unanticipated inaccuracies in the official list of teachers. It is important to note that the data that were collected during these verbal response interviews were consistent with those obtained in written form.

Demographic information was summarized and statistical analyses included basic descriptive statistics and factorial analyses. Factors used to analyze the responses included school size, teacher experience, teacher subject area, teacher degree, grade levels taught, class diversity, proportion of female students, and whether or not biotechnology was currently taught or should be taught. The Likert Scale responses (1 = "not important, omit" to 5 = "very important, a major element") were skewed toward above average values. Since a normal error distribution could not be obtained in spite of the data transformations, the nonparametric Kruskal-Wallis procedure was used for the factorial analyses. Factors were considered significant at _ = .05. Generally, Likert Scale scores within 0.3 units were not found to be statistically different.

Several problems emerged through the first survey. First, the original survey did not ask teachers whether they believed biotechnology should be taught as a separate course or as units within existing courses. This was because most preliminary discussions within the technology education field had identified biotechnology as though it should be a separate course of study. Comments made by some of the initial respondents indicated that this may not have been an appropriate assumption. A second problem was that, in the original survey, teachers were asked to identify the content they were most interested in teaching. The question that was not asked had to do with who they believed should be teaching biotechnology at their schools. Third, comments on the first survey indicated that the types of support teachers required to successfully teach biotechnology might be different from what might have been anticipated. After consideration of these additional questions that were raised by the responses to the first survey, a second survey was developed and sent to those respondents who had earlier indicated that biotechnology should be taught but was not currently taught at their schools. One hundred fifty surveys were distributed to the second group, and 70 completed surveys were returned. Results from this survey were simply summarized without statistical analysis.

Results and Discussion

Demographic Information

Agriculture teachers comprised 36% of the initial survey respondents, technology education teachers accounted for 32%, and the remaining 32% were science teachers. Approximately 45% of the teachers were from schools with 500 to 1000 students, with the others evenly distributed between smaller and larger schools. Nearly 50% of the teachers had more than 15 years experience, 80% of the teachers had a master's degree or above, and about two-thirds of the teachers taught high school. The technology education and science teachers were evenly split between middle school and high school. Twenty percent stated that their classes were ethnically and culturally diverse, and 60% reported classes that were more than 25% female.


Nearly 70% of the initial survey respondents stated that biotechnology was not currently being taught in their school. Eleven percent were unsure and only 19% reported that the content was currently being taught in some form in their school. Respondents (69%) strongly supported the teaching of biotechnology in their own schools. Only 5% of teachers believed that biotechnology should not be taught. About 80% of the agriculture teachers thought that biotechnology should be taught while about 60% of the technology education and science teachers supported the teaching of biotechnology.

Content Organizers

In response to the diverse proposals found in the literature for delineating content in the study of biotechnology, this study's panel of experts evaluated previously suggested content organizers and recommended a single set for use as the starting point for this study. The panel noted that Savage's ( 1990 ) list failed to adequately address the important foods/beverages and diagnostics/forensics industries, where biotechnology plays a prominent role. The panel also noted that the narrow molecular focuses, which were suggested as themes by McInerrney ( 1990 ), overlooked important industries and processes. The panel of experts appreciated the processes described by Savage and Sterry ( 1991 ). However, their judgement was that the categories stopped short of including processes used in diagnostic applications. The content areas identified by Zeller ( 1994 ) ignored areas such as energy development, manufacturing, and food development and production. Wells' ( 1995 ) categories were judged by the panel to be similarly incomplete.

After the literature was discussed and compared against the broad range of applications in biotechnology, the content was synthesized and categorized into seven content organizers. These were agriculture, medicine and drugs, environmental, energy development, forensics and diagnostics, manufacturing, and food and beverage production.

Teachers' perceptions about the appropriateness of the seven content organizers for high school or middle school instruction are presented in Table 1 . The scale used to rate the organizers contained five points (e.g., 1 = "not appropriate, omit" and 5 = "very appropriate.") Teachers were also asked to suggest any additional content organizers they believed had been inappropriately omitted from the list. No additional organizers were suggested from the 187 respondents.

Table 1
Teacher Perceptions of Content Organizer Appropriateness

Content Organizers n M SEM

Ariculture 187 3.9 0.094
Medicine and Drugs 187 4.2 0.071
Environmental 187 4.6 0.047
Energy Development 187 4.2 0.069
Diagnostics and Forensics 187 3.6 0.090
Manufacturing 187 3.9 0.078
Foods and Beverages 187 4.1 0.069

Note. A difference of 0.3 units or more generally indicates a significant difference at a=0.05.

Based on the data, it is apparent that the teachers favored environmental applications and were less supportive of forensic applications. However, the narrow range of responses indicates strong support for all the organizers suggested. Analysis of responses by subgroup (i.e, agriculture, technology education, and science teachers) showed a similar response pattern with the exception that agriculture teachers rated agriculture content most highly (mean score 4.7) while science teachers rated agriculture lowest (mean score 3.3).

When asked what content they would be most willing to teach (assuming the availability of adequate support), each of the teacher groups rated environmental applications highly, with mean scores of 4.2 for agriculture teachers, 4.5 for technology teachers, and 4.6 for science teachers. Not surprisingly, science teachers also favored medical applications (M = 4.3), agriculture teachers favored agricultural applications (M = 4.8), and technology education teachers favored energy and manufacturing applications (M = 4.3 for both).


Teachers were then asked to respond to instructional topics that could potentially be applied across the biotechnology curricula organizers including bioethics issues, history and development of biotechnology, related careers, limitations of technological solutions, and the impacts of technologies on societies and cultures. The accompanying question was, "On a scale of 1-5, how important are each of the following when designing biotechnology curricula?" The scale ranged from 1 = "not important, omit" to 5 = "very important." Related careers and impacts on society and culture were viewed as being the most valuable topics, with mean scores of 4.5 and 4.4 respectively, while the History and Development category was viewed as being least valuable (M = 3.4). Perhaps the most striking characteristic about the responses to this set of questions was the high level of support and the narrow range of responses (see Table 2 ).

Table 2
Teacher Perception on Importance of Instructional Topics

Topics n M SEM

Bioethics Issues 187 3.9 0.077
History and Development 187 3.4 0.081
Career Opportunities 187 4.5 0.053
Limitations and Advantages of Technology 187 4.1 0.074
Impacts on People, Society, Culture & Environment 187 4.4 0.061

Note. A difference of 0.3 units or more generally indicates a significant difference at a=0.05.

Some interesting differences in responses were observed across teaching areas. Science teachers rated the study of careers lower than the other teachers, and impacts on culture and society were rated lower by agriculture teachers. Technology education teachers ranked history and development higher than did the science and agriculture teachers.


Integration of content across disciplines has been a key element of educational reform. Given the interdisciplinary nature of biotechnology content, curriculum development may require substantial integration among science and math, social studies, technological concepts, and computer applications. Consequently, it seemed prudent to assess teacher preferences about important combinations of integration for this study. Thus, teachers were asked to rate the importance of various integration variations on a scale of 1 = "not important, omit" to 5 = "very important." Teachers rated interdisciplinary integration highly with mean scores for math/science, technological concepts/science, and computer applications integration in the range of 4.4 to 4.6. Social studies/science integration, while somewhat lower, still received an above average score (M = 4.0), indicating teacher acceptance of its importance (see Table 3 ).

Table 3
Teacher Perception on Importance of Integration Variations

Integration Variations n M SEM

Science and Mathematics 187 4.5 0.051
Science and Social Studies 187 4.0 0.068
Science and Technology 187 4.6 0.050
Computer Applications 187 4.4 0.055

Note. A difference of 0.3 units or more generally indicates a significant difference at a=0.05.

Subtle differences in the ratings for integration occurred when teachers were grouped by demographic variables. Teachers at small schools and at middle schools (particularly science teachers) rated the integration of computer applications higher than did teachers at larger schools and high schools. The same pattern was also observed with technology education teachers with less experience and without graduate degrees (i.e., newer teachers). High school technology education teachers rated social studies integration higher than did technology education teachers in middle schools. The integration of technological concepts/science was rated higher by teachers without graduate degrees, middle school teachers, teachers with a high proportion of female students, and science teachers having classes with low diversity.

Transferable Skills

Transferable skills that could be associated with biotechnology instruction include (a) experiences in collecting and analyzing data, (b) participating in open-ended design-based problem-solving, and (c) reading and understanding technical literature. Teachers rated each of these skills as very important, with mean scores ranging from 4.1 to 4.4. Data Collection and Analysis was ranked higher by science teachers and lower by technology education teachers. Open-Ended Problem-Solving was ranked higher by teachers without graduate degrees and by teachers having less diverse classes. The differences between these two groups were small, but significant (see Table 4 ).

Table 4
Teacher Perception on Importance of Transferable Skills

Skills n M SEM

Data Collection & Analysis 187 4.1 0.078
Open-ended Problem-solving 187 4.4 0.068
Read & Apply
Technical Information
187 4.2 0.073

Note. A difference of 0.3 units or more generally indicates a significant difference at a=0.05.

Instructional Design Elements

Biotechnology content can potentially be taught using numerous instructional design and delivery methods (e.g., student-directed instructional modules, teacher-directed lecture or discussion, small group instruction, whole class instruction, printed materials, and computerized instructional materials). As indicated in Table 5 , most of these methods or elements were rated similarly by the teachers, with mean scores for modules, small groups, printed materials, and computerized materials ranging from 4.0 to 4.3. Whole class instruction was rated slightly lower (M = 3.8) and lecture, while acceptable, was least favored (M = 3.3).

Table 5
Teacher Preferences for Instructional Delivery Methods

Delivery Methods n M SEM

Modules 187 4.0 0.078
Lecture 187 3.3 0.087
Small Groups 187 4.0 0.077
Whole Class 187 3.8 0.082
Printed Material 187 4.3 0.065
Computerized Instruction 187 4.3 0.073

Note. A difference of 0.3 units or more generally indicates a significant difference at a=0.05.

Since instructional modules are most common in the technology education classroom, it could have been predicted that technology education teachers would rate student- directed modules and computerized materials somewhat higher and whole class instruction lower than the other teachers. Agriculture teachers rated modules and computerized materials lower than did the other teachers. Middle school teachers rated modules higher than high school teachers did, while teachers in small schools rated computerized materials higher than did teachers in large schools.

Second Survey

Perceptions obtained from teachers on the second questionnaire survey regarding who should teach biotechnology are depicted in Table 6 . Clearly, the teachers believed that science teachers must be involved in biotechnology education and that an interdisciplinary approach is preferable. Of the 70 total responses, 45 teachers indicated that a science teacher or an integrated team comprised of a science, technology education, and agriculture teacher would be appropriate. Although biotechnology has been promoted as appropriate content (and even a separate course) for technology education in Kentucky, only 12 of the 70 respondents indicated that a technology education teacher working alone should teach the subject.

Table 6
Why Should We Teach Biotechnology in High or Middle Schools

Teacher Type Count

Science 22
Science & Agriculture 16
Science & Technology Education 5
Science, Agriculture & Technology Education 2
Agriculture 13
Technology Education 12

Note. n=70.

An additional question posed in the second survey asked teachers, "What support would be most needed to get instruction in biotechnology offered or expanded at your school?" Responses to this question, which include multiple selections from most teachers, are presented in Table 7 . Availability of student-directed modules and teacher training opportunities were identified by over 66% of the respondents as being most needed. Curricula frameworks and activity or laboratory guides were also identified frequently. The availability of bibliographic information and speakers was not perceived to be important. Finally, teachers were asked whether biotechnology should be taught as a separate course or as a unit within existing courses. Fifty-two respondents (74%) indicated that biotechnology should be taught as a unit or units within another course or courses rather than as a separate course.

Table 7
Support Most Needed for Implementation of Biotechnology Instruction

Support Count

Instructional Modules 51
Teacher Training 47
Activity or Laboratory Manuals 34
Curriculum Frameworks 32
Seed Money Grants 22
Textbooks 19
Computer Software 17
Expert Guest Speakers 1
Annotated Bibliographies of Resources 1

Note. n=70.

Discussion and Implications for Teacher Education

At the outset of the discussion of the findings of this study, it is important to note that the sample was limited to a single state (Kentucky) and that it is not appropriate to directly generalize the results to other states or regions. However, these findings do represent an important preliminary examination of an emerging content area that is generating considerable interest within the technology education field. As such, it is hoped that the study will contribute to discourse on this content area.

Based on the findings of this study and given its limitations, it appears that relatively little progress has been made toward implementing biotechnology into high school/middle school curricula. At the same time, there is strong support among teachers across both levels and disciplines for introducing biotechnology curricula. There appears to be a need for universities to offer teacher training in delivery of biotechnology instruction at both the pre-service and in-service levels. This study's results also indicate that teachers perceive biotechnology to be inherently interdisciplinary; therefore, it is important that both target teacher audiences and teacher educators should represent multiple disciplines. Support for the notion that biotechnology should be exclusively a technology education subject, taught by individual technology education teachers, does not appear to be warranted. Another important element that factors into the discussion of incorporating biotechnology content into the schools has to do with laboratory equipment. The necessary equipment typically is expensive. One way technology education programs have dealt with this problem (with varying degrees of success) has been through the use of instructional modules in the laboratory. Many of the same vendors who have moved aggressively into the technology education classrooms are also working with science and agriculture departments. Support for the development of instructional materials is considered essential if biotechnology instruction opportunities are to be enhanced and expanded. This is particularly true for materials that facilitate small group or independent student study. Teachers rated modular delivery systems and small group instruction highest of all techniques presented. They also rated development of instructional modules and teacher training as the support most needed to facilitate the expansion of biotechnology instruction.

Teacher education programs should provide teachers, at both pre-service and in- service levels, with the know-how to evaluate, use, and develop instructional modules. Similarly it is important to provide experiences of delivering biotechnology content as small group activities and through computer simulations.

Findings from this study suggest that biotechnology instruction should be delivered across disciplines rather than through any one discipline. General support for infusion of biotechnology throughout existing content was strong. All suggested forms of interdisciplinary integration were rated highly. Further, when teachers identified content that they would be willing and qualified to teach, all of the content organizers received high ratings from at least one teacher group. At the same time, it is important to note that no single teacher group felt qualified or indicated a willingness to teach all of the content organizers. Agriculture teachers preferred to teach concepts related to agriculture, the environment, and pollution. Science teachers were more comfortable with medicine/drugs, environment/pollution, diagnostics/forensics, foods/beverages, and energy development. Technology education teachers preferred to teach content in environment/pollution, energy development, and manufacturing. Teacher preparation programs in each of these disciplinary areas should assure that course content adequately prepares instructors to, at minimum, teach those preferred content areas that have been identified. Additionally, teacher preparation programs should encourage collaboration among pre-service teachers and teachers from multiple disciplines to improve the quality of instructional integration across disciplines.

While there is considerable interest in and support for including biotechnology content into various content areas, much work remains to be done. The traditional delivery mechanisms and disciplinary content structures do not appear to serve this emerging content area appropriately. Instructional materials designed to be delivered by teachers in isolation from teachers of other disciplines may detract from the richness and interdisciplinary nature of the content. Disciplinary separation also increases the probability that the content will not be taught well, since relatively few teachers have the background and expertise needed to teach biotechnology. Collaboration across disciplines and integration of content represent natural solutions to this problem. Teacher educators should provide a leadership role in preparing teachers and curricula to teach this important emerging content.


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