App aims to boost high school agri-science teaching

Grace Troupe
Grace Troupe

A new app will give high school agri-science teachers a tool for teaching biotechnology to their students.

"The Journey of a Gene" is the product of a partnership between Iowa State University and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The project uses the example of soybean and the disease, sudden death syndrome, to illustrate the process of genetic engineering.

The project began with a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant for more than $5 million titled "Transgenic Approaches to Sudden Death Syndrome in Soybean." ISU scientists Madan Bhattacharyya and Alison Robertson envisioned an extension component that would target agri-science teachers who also lead FFA chapters across the country.

Bhattacharyya and Robertson thought an app that could be used on a smartphone or tablet would work best for teachers and their students. Robertson was familiar with UNL agronomy professor Don Lee's teaching in genetics and biotechnology, and they partnered with him and UNL's Plant and Soil Science eLibrary to develop and evaluate the app.

Grace Troupe, one of Lee's graduate students, took the app development on as her master's project.

She started with UNL and Lincoln programming experts and was led to Crowd Favorite, a small app development company. She used existing Plant and Soil Science eLibrary resources and worked with videographers to capture the work of scientists from UNL and ISU.

The app, at, shows "the real science behind genetic engineering," Troupe said.

The Journey of a Gene breaks down the genetic engineering process into four sections in showing how soybeans can be engineered to be resistant to sudden death syndrome. In the video, scientists explain techniques used in the process.

"We hope the app will capture the attention of youth and educate them in plant biotechnology, which will likely play a key role in the successful second green revolution to feed the ever-growing population in the 21st century," Bhattacharyya said.

Bhattacharyya added that he hopes exposing students to biotechnology through the app might even encourage some to enter plant science as a career.

Troupe said the team will be getting feedback from teachers and further refining the app. It will be piloted with college students this fall to see how it changes their attitudes toward genetic engineering, and the app will be used next spring in the Nebraska FFA contest. Troupe also is presenting it in other regional meetings.

The app gives science teachers a way to present very complicated but critical, science-based information to their students.

"The reason they don't teach this very much is they feel it's a really difficult subject. They worry about misunderstanding the science," Troupe said. She cited the example of one teacher who used to spend 10 minutes on genetic engineering in class in the past; now, using the app, he wants to do eight full class periods on the topic.

"These classrooms have our future producers and consumers. They need to understand this technology so they can make better decisions," Troupe said.

UNL's Plant and Soil Sciences eLibrary produces educational material covering aspects of agriculture ranging from genetics to soil science to agronomic practices. Founded in 1999, the eLibrary is a collaborative project between the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.