Teaching Science through History
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Maize: a theme in agriculture, genetics and environment

by Shawn Kuykendall

Oaxacan maizeMaize, or corn, serves an occasion for a series of lessons about the basis for agricultural knowledge in two different cultures: subsistence maize farming in Mexico and large scale monoculture farming in the U.S. In particular, it shows how practices once considered primitive by Western culture reflect sustainable methods in their native environments and cultures methods now being taken more seriously by modern societies. Topics also include nutrition, genetic history of modern corn, origins of cultivation, nitrogen cycle and fertilizers, and pesticides.

A second module focuses on genetics, using maize as a model organism. Students learn about selective breeding of plants, hybrid plants, basic genetic elements within maize and modern genetic technologies. Includes standard concepts of inheritance, epistasis and transposable genetic elements, illustrated through examples in maize; economics of hybrid corn; ethics of GM foods.

Major NOS elements include:

  • science in different cultural contexts
  • ethical dimensions of scientific knowledge
  • model organisms

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