JITE v36n4 - Comments - Biotechnology Content Organizers

Volume 36, Number 4
Summer 1999

Biotechnology Content Organizers

John G. Wells
West Virginia University

In their article "On Teaching Biotechnology in Kentucky" published in the summer 1998 issue of the Journal of Industrial Teacher Education, Brown, Kemp, and Hall provide readers with an interesting discussion of the movement by the profession to include biotechnology as a content component for technology education programs. However, the review of literature and study they conducted to help clarify issues surrounding the definition of biotechnology, appropriate content organizers, and models of instructional delivery falls short for some very important reasons.

Definition of Terms

Definition of terms is fundamental to establishing common ground between discussants, within and between disciplines, of a given topic. Establishing an agreed upon definition of biotechnology is the crucial first step in determining its fit and viability within the field of technology education. Brown, et al. (1998) reviewed various pieces of the literature in an attempt to resolve confusion between such terms as bio-related and biotechnology and to conclude, for themselves, what definition they should use as the basis for their study. Although I agree with their final conclusion to accept a well-established definition of biotechnology, the rationale behind their choice is questionable.

In comparing the definitions for bio-related technology (Savage & Sterry, 1991) and biotechnology (Ahmed, 1996; Committee of Foundational Science, 1995; North Central Regional Extension, Iowa State University, 1996; Tomal, 1992, 1993; Wells, 1995) found in the literature, Brown, Kemp, and Hall (1998) concluded that "given the similarities between the definition proposed by Savage and Sterry and the one proposed by the Committee of Foundational Science, the researchers used the Committee's definition" (p. 2). The 1991 definition of bio-related used by Savage and Sterry was "biological organisms to make or modify products" (p. 2). The definition for biotechnology used by the Committee of Foundational Science was "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" (p. 2). Clearly, the definition offered by Savage and Sterry is but a small subset of the Committee's definition. Furthermore, both definitions can be seen as subsets derived from earlier definitions established in the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA, 1988, 1991) and Biotechnology for the 21st Century: Realizing the Promise (1992, 1993) reports, as were cited and supported, in my 1995 article. These reports stated that biotechnology "includes any technique that uses living organisms (or parts of organisms) to make or modify products, to improve plants or animals, or to develop micro-organisms for specific purposes" (p. 60). It is a stretch to say the similarities between the Savage and Sterry and the Committee of Foundational Science definitions are reason enough to accept the Committee's definition. A far stronger basis for accepting the Committee's definition would be to cite similarities to the one consistently used in the earlier governmental reports, which together span five years of inquiry. Yet, having reached the conclusion to accept a definition specific to the term biotechnology, Brown et al. ( 1998) stopped short of resolving the confusion of terms when they followed their own conclusion with the statement "It is also important to note that the terms biotechnology and bio-related technologies are used interchangeably throughout this study" (p. 2-3). The term bio-related technologies is unique to a narrow perspective and is little recognized or used elsewhere. This was substantiated in the literature reviewed by Brown et al. (1998) and should have resulted in their exclusion of the term bio-related technologies from that point forward in the study. Continuing to use both terms perpetuates the confusion and likely influenced their study.

Appropriate Biotechnology Organizers

Brown et al. (1998) also reviewed the literature for the purpose of gleaning biotechnology content organizers proposed by researchers within and across disciplines. Their stated intent was to establish the basis for discussing content organizers among a panel of experts given the task of creating a survey instrument for future use in their study. The panel was "convened to (a) evaluate previously proposed content organizers and (b) recommend a single set that might be used as the starting point" (p. 4) for their study. However, their review was not thorough and resulted in a less than complete listing of proposed organizers being presented to the panel. Specifically, the content organizers presented to the panel were those proposed by Savage (1990), McInerney (1990), Savage and Sterry (1991), Zeller (1994), and Wells ( 1995). Of the five sets of organizers presented, one (Wells, 1995) was incomplete. Brown et al. (1998) stated that Wells "proposed a five-part structure including bioprocessing, foundations in biotechnology, genetic engineering, agriculture, and biochemistry" (p. 3). Their statement is unfortunately inaccurate. The 1995 article they refer to presented the eight content organizers I originally determined in my 1994 study (Wells, 1994), which included the five they listed and three additional ones; medicine, environment, and bioethics. The error resulted from not having read the entire 1995 article, as was noted by the lead author in a personal communique and evidenced in the reference list where the article is shown to end on page 13. The last page of the article was actually page 14, where the final three organizers were listed. This inadvertent omission resulted in their panel of experts concluding that the Wells (1995) organizers ignored areas they felt important and, therefore, were judged incomplete.

The other proposed lists of organizers included for review were similarly judged incomplete and led the panel toward synthesizing these lists into one of their own design. The list they developed used the following seven content organizers: agriculture, medicine and drugs, environment, energy development, forensics and diagnostics, manufacturing, and food and beverage production. It is interesting to note that of the seven organizers on their list all save energy development, which is covered in bioprocessing was either one of the Wells (1994) content organizers or a subdivision of one. The table below helps to clarify this point.

Table 1
Comparison of Wells & Brown, Kemp, Hall Content Organizers
Biotechnology Knowledge Areas and Subdivisions
Brown, Kemp, Hall:
Biotechnology Content Organizers
  • Definition of biotechnology
  • Historical background
  • Relevant terms
  • Career information
  • Social impact
  • Bioremediation
  • Biological controls
  • Biotreatment systems
  • Biorestoration
  • Environmental safety
  • Tissue culturing
  • Plant and animal applications
  • Agrichemicals
  • Aquaculture
  • Food science

  • Fermentation
  • Bio-products
  • Microbial applications
  • Separation and purification techniques
  • Process design: monitoring and growth
  • Probing techniques
  • Genetic engineering applications
  • Genetic code
  • Molecular bio techniques
  • Analysis of DNA
  • Enzymology
  • Control and regulation
  • Proteins
  • Methods of analysis
  • Carbohydrates
  • Molecular medicine
  • Immunology
  • Genetic therapeutics
  • Health care technologies
  • Social impact
  • Principles of ethics
  • Impacts of using biotechnology
  • Potentials of gene therapy
  • Patenting of life
  • Forensics
Note: Wells subdivisions are a partial listing of those derived in his 1994 study.

Considering the teacher perceptions results presented by Brown et al. (1998) in Table 1 of their article, where Environmental and Medicine and Drugs are two of the top ranked content organizers, clearly the inclusion of the three missing Wells organizers might well have influenced the construction of the list created by the panel of experts for use in the first survey. In addition, Brown et al. (1998) concluded from this data that "the narrow range of responses indicated strong support for all the organizers suggested," which further substantiates the impact of Wells' missing organizers (e.g., forensics was a subdirectory of the omitted Bioethics organizer). One might even conclude that the Knowledge Areas and Subdivisions I proposed reflect so well the list generated by the panel, that had the eight organizers proposed by Wells (1994) been presented to them they would simply have used them without modification.


The field of biotechnology is interdisciplinary by nature and as such lends itself to collaboration between disciplines when being studied. In addressing this aspect of biotechnology Brown et al. (1998) noted that none of the sources they used "specifically suggested that biotechnology should be integrated across disciplines as diverse as science, agriculture, and technology education" (p. 3). This is an accurate observation given the resources that they gathered. However, my 1995 article did reference the earlier research (Wells, 1994), wherein the approach to integration was briefly discussed as part of the conclusion. Prudent research includes a thorough review of pertinent literature, especially those references cited as foundational research in the articles comprising the review. The authors go on to point out that the integration of content across disciplines is viewed as an essential element in current educational reform, and as such it was prudent for them to assess teacher perceptions regarding integration combinations. This echoes the approach suggested in both Wells (1994, 1995) articles.


The study conducted by Brown, Kemp, and Hall (1998) provides useful insight into the ongoing process of incorporating biotechnology into the technology education curriculum. In addition, it substantiates active movement within the profession to address this area of study and indicates a willingness on the part of teachers to include it as an element of their instruction. I applaud the efforts put forth by the authors and support their approach to determining a structure for the study of biotechnology within technology education programs.

Accuracy of information is fundamental to research. This article was written for purposes of clarification alone and sought to inform readers of the inadvertent omission of relevant data. In an effort to rectify reader misperceptions resulting from misinformation, comment was offered to clarify the authors' interpretation of resultant data and to highlight research ramifications resulting from the omission.


Wells is Associate Professor in the Technology Education Program at West Virginia University, Morgantown.


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Tracy Gilmore