Evolving germs – Antibiotic resistance and natural selection in education and public communication
Abstract: Bacterial resistance to antibiotics threatens modern healthcare on a global scale. Several actors in society, including the general public, must become more involved if this development is to be countered. The conveyance of relevant information provided through education and media reports is therefore of high concern. Antibiotic resistance evolves through the mechanisms of natural selection; in this way, a sound understanding of these mechanisms underlies explanations of causes and the development of effective risk-reduction measures. In addition to natural selection functioning as an explanatory framework to antibiotic resistance, bacterial resistance as a context seems to possess a number of qualities that make it suitable for teaching natural selection – a subject that has been proven notoriously hard to teach and learn. A recently suggested approach for learning natural selection involves so-called threshold concepts, which encompass abstract and integrative ideas. The threshold concepts associated with natural selection include, among others, the notions of randomness as well as vast spatial and temporal scales. Illustrating complex relationships between concepts on different levels of organization is one, of several, areas where visualizations are efficient. Given the often-imperceptible nature of threshold concepts as well as the fact that natural selection processes occur on different organizational levels, visual accounts of natural selection have many potential benefits for learning.Against this background, the present dissertation explores information conveyed to the public regarding antibiotic resistance and natural selection, as well as investigates how these topics are presented together, by scrutinizing media including news reports, websites, educational textbooks and online videos. The principal method employed in the media studies was content analysis, which was complemented with various other analytical procedures. Moreover, a classroom study was performed, in which novice pupils worked with a series of animations explaining the evolution of antibiotic resistance. Data from individual written assignments, group questions and video-recorded discussions were collected and analyzed to empirically explore the potential of antibiotic resistance as a context for learning about evolution through natural selection.Among the findings are that certain information, that is crucial for the public to know, about antibiotic resistance was conveyed to a low extent through wide-reaching news reporting. Moreover, explanations based on natural selection were rarely included in accounts of antibiotic resistance in any of the examined media. Thus, it is highly likely that a large proportion of the population is never exposed to explanations for resistance development during education or through newspapers. Furthermore, the few examples that were encountered in newspapers or textbooks were hardly ever visualized, but presented only in textual form. With regard to videos purporting to explain natural selection, it was found that a majority lacked accounts of central key concepts. Additionally, explanations of how variation originates on the DNA-level were especially scarce. These and other findings coming from the content analyses are discussed through the lens of scientific literacy and could be used to inform and strengthen teaching and scientific curricula with regards to both antibiotic resistance and evolution. Furthermore, several factors of interest for using antibiotic resistance in the teaching of evolution were identified from the classroom study. These involve, among others, how learners’ perception of threshold concepts such as randomness and levels of organization in space and time are affected by the bacterial context
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