R M Cullen
MD MSc MFM BA DipStats DipProfEthics
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New Zealand Science Trust aims to assist High Schools to develop approaches to science teaching that engage the best students and which integrate science teaching across multiple curriculum areas.
I was very involved in establishing this trust, and have been its chairman from day one.
My own introduction to inspirational science teaching came in my first year at university when Richard Feynmann delivered four public lectures, each of which left me thinking of little else for days, and each of which has stayed with me ever since.
The trust has been most involved in the delivery of senior high school biology, which everywhere around the world is boring, boring, boring.
Our most successful programme was the 'cloning the huia' (a recently extinct bird native to New Zealand) which at the turn of the century resulted in some published peer-reviewed research as DNA was extracted by high school students (grades 10-13) from a stuffed bird.
One of the students involved in that project, Chris Perry won the NZ Science Magazine's school science journalism award with the piece reproduced below
Boys Cloning Birds
It ain't extinct unless the DNA's dead, as this winning entry in this year's School Science Journalism competition demonstrates. Chris Perry, from Hasting Boy's High School, wins $150 courtesy of JADE and a gift book from Penguin Books.
At Hastings Boys' High School, science fiction isn't just a myth. We are trying to bring back our school emblem from the dead! The huia has been extinct for the past seventy years but we hope to clone it to life again.
Already boys in
The Huia is a very special bird to all New Zealanders. It is especially significant to Hastings Boys' High School and has been worn proudly as our school emblem for nearly 100 years. It was also sacred to the traditional Maori people. It was seen as the most beautiful bird of Tane Mahuta, and only high ranking chiefs were permitted to wear its sacred tail feathers. So special is this bird that, 70 years after its extinction, an old boy from HBHS, Dr Rhys Cullen, generously supported the development of The Huia Project
Dr Cullen had to use his powers of persuasion to get this project off the ground. HBHS is very proud to be a traditional boys' school and 'something like this requires a sense of adventure from a 96 year-old state school', said Dr Cullen. Why? 'Because it's a crazy idea' he laughed. Having convinced the staff that this was a worthwhile and educational project, he took the quick way to the boys' hearts - he just fed us roast chicken and chocolate when he wanted us to work, and promised us a trip to Dunedin to do the practical experimental work if our theory work was successful
After ten weeks of learning about DNA sequencing (7th form biology level), a group of four juniors travelled to Otago University and successfully carried out the practical work under the supervision of Dr Tebutt, a university researcher. The huia DNA that we sequenced had been previously extracted at Otago University by two 7th formers from HBHS. The next step is to insert the nucleus from a huia cell into a host embryo, and remove all the traces of host DNA from that embryo. Then we must place the embryo back in the host bird at the beginning of its journey to become an egg. The egg will then hatch the first huia seen alive in 70 years. Not as easy as it sounds but we're having great fun working on it.
We're also learning to consider every aspect of a seemingly simple idea, and avoid the mistakes that come from narrow vision. Cloning the huia sounds simple, but there is more than just science to consider. For the first eight months Dr Cullen made us explore the morals and ethics of cloning, to make sure we fully understood the depth of what we were attempting to do. These studies concluded with a national conference held over two days at Hastings Boys' High School.
One topic that was debated widely at this conference was whether there is an obligation under the Treaty of Waitangi for the Crown to bring back the huia, if this is possible by cloning. There were varied opinions from both Maori and pakeha. Speeches from students discussed arguments for and against there being an obligation, with no consensus reached. One argument was that as both Maori and pakeha had contributed significantly to the demise of the huia, Maori cannot claim back what they threw away. Another question raised was that of who can claim rights to the huia; when the Treaty was signed in 1840, the people of Aotearoa were signing permission for pakeha to be on the land without changing their rights to forest and fisheries. But now, 160 years later, who are the people of Aotearoa? Who has rights to the huia? Lastly, even if we do succeed in cloning a huia, will it have the cultural significance of the original bird? Will it be a bird of Tane Mahuta, or will it be a bird of man?
This conference was a huge success. Scientific participants were made aware of other issues affecting science. A school was spearheading the joining of morals and ethics with science. Heady stuff for teenage boys.
It seems that Jurassic Park isnt' impossible and students from Hastings Boys' High School are out to prove that. Before we are let loose on dinosaur DNA however, we know that we must stop and consider the morals, ethics and consequences of our scientific proposals. The Huia Project has taught us that.