2013. Vol.4, No.2, 149-153
Published Online February 2013 in SciRes (http://www.scirp.org/journal/ce) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/ce.2013.42021
Copyright © 2013 SciR e s . 149
High School Students’ Attitudes Associated with Biotechnology
and Molecular Genetics Concepts in Brazil*
Alexandre de Sá Freire, Márcia Cristina Fernandes Xavier, Milton Ozório Moraes
Genetic Epidemiology and Functional Genomics Research Group Oswaldo Cruz Institute,
Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Received September 3rd, 2012; revised October 7th, 2012; accepted October 18th, 2012
There is an enormous gap between scientific production and scientific education in Genetics and Bio-
technology concerning stem cells, transgenics, genetically engineered medicines and so on. In order to
investigate the knowledge and the perception of these concepts among teenagers, a total of 334 surveys
were distributed to high school students in one private and two state schools in the Rio de Janeiro state,
Brazil. Interviews were also used as a qualitative tool to assess the validity of the data obtained in the
surveys. Students reported clear ideas about transgenics, but not about genetic engineering of recombinant
medication or genomics. The results suggest that when issues are discussed, instead of being explained,
they are better assimilated by students, and that association of information in the press with school classes
may help to spread scientific concepts.
Keywords: Science Teaching; Biotechnology; Opinion; Genetics; Molecular Biology; DNA
Since the rise of recombinant DNA technology, molecular
genetics has grown considerably. Terms like molecula r biology
and biotechnology have become more frequently used by the
media and, therefore, became part of everyday life. Such de-
velopment uncovers new issues such as diagnostic tests based
on DNA detection, the use of DNA testing for paternity and
transgenic food development. These themes are escalating fast
enough to create a huge gap between these new discoveries and
the average information discussed in class. Although the media
attempts to fill in this gap by reporting scientific discoveries
and technological innovations, it frequently fails to provide
correct information (Eyck, 2005; Massarani & Moreira, 2005).
In addition, such development is not properly discussed in high
school biology classes.
Dawson and Schibeci (2003) have thrown light on the need
of teaching students about the recent technological discoveries.
The authors said that “we need to prepare students to make
personal and social choices about issues related to Science and
Technology”. Cavanagh et al. (2005) indicate that efforts in
scientific education are still necessary, showing that a signifi-
cant portion of high school students do not know about Bio-
technology. In this context, Jay Lemke (1990) points out that
the science learning process is related to necessity of learning
the science language, i.e., as students learn scientific concepts,
they learn to speak the scientific language.
As a methodological approach, high school students from
both state and private schools were submitted to a survey in
order to assess their background knowledge. Results show that
students have limited view not only about concepts in basic
Genetics, but also in relation to new Biotechological innova-
tions. Results point out that science and technology education
has not been correctly addressed.
High school students from one private and two state schools,
all located in the State of Rio de Janeiro, in the cities of
Petrópolis and Angra dos Reis (with more than 150,000 inhabi-
tants) participated in this study. All students were in the third
year of high school and most of them (2 out 3 classes) did not
take formal genetics classe s.
We used quantitative and qualitative approaches comple-
mentarily. In a first approach, students’ attitudes were evaluated
by a quantitative survey and, secondly, interviews were con-
ducted and recorded in order to clarify students’ opinions.
Quantitative Approach: The Survey
The quantitative approach was performed through a survey.
A total of 337 students answered the survey. Among these stu-
dents, 198 were from Colégio Estadual D. Pedro II, 105 from
Colégio Estadual Arthur Vargas (two State schools in Petrópo-
lis and Angra dos Reis, respectively) and 34 students from
Colégio Dom Bosco, a private school in Angra dos Reis. All
students were 16 - 18 years/old irrespective of the school they
attended. No gender bias was observed and our studied popula-
tion had 55% of boys. It is important to notice that, in Brazil,
private schools are generally from middle, higher classes, while
public schools people from lower classes are more prevalent.
The issues in the survey included transgenics, genetic im-
provement, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), human
cloning, stem cells, Genome Project, genetic therapy, molecular
diagnosis, paternity tests, and genetic vaccines. The survey was
constructed with two sets of questions. In the first set, students
were asked to answer whether they agreed with (A), disagreed
with (D) or had neutral opinion (N) about issues concerning
Biotechnology, including their general acceptance, application,
A. DE SÁ FREIRE ET AL.
benefits and risks to society. The second set included five
“yes”/“no” questions with room for students to give examples
of Biotechnological improvement.
In order to assess the consistency of answers from the first
set of questions when compared to the second one, we analyzed
the joint distribution of the data from the two sets of questions
by creating 2 × 2 contingency tables. The statistical signifi-
cance of the cross tabulations was measured by Chi-square tests
considering the significance level of p < 0.05 (Graphpad Instat
Answers to the surveys have provided important information,
but raised some inconsistencies which we tried to resolve
through semi-structured interviews. These interviews allowed
in-depth exploration and granted flexibility for students to ex-
press themselves freely and solve ambiguities.
These interviews were in the number of three and were car-
ried out with three groups of students, each one from a different
class with five, six and eight students, respectively. The inter-
views were carried out in a lower class students’ state school.
First, there were four girls and just one boy. At the second,
there were three boys and three girls. In the last interview, there
were three boys and five girls. Students were between 17 and
18 years old and came from lower classes. Interviews were
recorded and fully transcribed. We used key sentences to rep-
resent the students’ general view on each subject.
We assumed that students’ opinions could be influenced by
their socioeconomical condition, since students from private
schools are generally from high-income families, while students
from state schools usually come from low-income families. In
comparing both contexts, scientific education and access to the
internet and to laboratories vary significantly. This factor may
have influenced the opinions obtained in this study. To prevent
this bias, analyses were performed separately and as there was
not significant variation between the two contexts, high-income
and low-income students (data not shown), and results here
embody all students:
Answers for the first set of questions of the survey are pre-
sented in Table 1. In some cases, students showed clear opin-
ions. For instance, 62% of the students did not agree with hu-
man cloning for biotechnological social improvement, but, in
relation to DNA paternity tests, most of the students (82%)
agreed with their use. Diagnostic tests based on DNA technol-
ogy were considered acceptable for 58% of the students. Other
results, such as Genetic Therapy, Genetically Modified Organ-
isms, stem cells and Genetic Vaccines had a “neutral” rate of
The “yes” and “no” answers to the second block of questions
are presented in Table 2. The majority of the students reported
that they have not eaten transgenic food (76%), while 65%
showed to have no restrictions to eating transgenics, and 63%
said they had no restriction about the application of genetically
engineered medicine. Nevertheless, 79% of the students believe
that the results of the Genome Project make the prognosis of
Answers for the firs t set of questions on t he survey.
Biotech advance A D N Total
Transgenics 156 (47%) 80 (24%) 93 (29%)329
Genetic im provement 228 (69%) 31 (9%) 71 (22%)330
GMO 152 (46%) 52 (16%) 124 (38%)328
Human clonin g 73 (22%) 206 (62%) 51 (16%)330
Stem cells 178 (55%) 22 (7%) 126 (39%)326
Genome pro ject 187 (56%) 34 (10%) 110 (33%)3 31
Genetic therapy 159 (49%) 37 (11%) 131 (40%)327
DNA diagnostic tests 176 (59%) 29 (10%) 94 (31%)299
DNA paternity test 270 (82%) 13 (4%) 44 (14%)327
Genetic va ccines 174 (53%) 34 (10%) 122 (37%)330
A—agree; D—disagree; N—neut ral.
Answers to “yes” or “no” questions regarding the issues in everyday
Yes No Total
Have you e aten
transgenic food? (1) 79
Do you have restriction s t o
eating transgenic food? (2) 110
Have you ever used any
genetically engineered medicine? (3) 18
Would you have any restriction
in using genetically engineered medicine? ( 4) 121
Is it possible to perform cancer prognosis
tests using data from Genome Projects? (5) 257
Table 3 shows contingency tables created to evaluate the
coherence of the answers collected in the two sets of questions,
(Table 3). These data show that, for some issues, students’
attitudes are consistent as tested by the statistical analysis. For
example, the comparison of students’ opinions about restric-
tions to the use of transgenic food (“yes” or “no” questions) and
the acceptability of this product as a biotechnological advance
showed a significant number of students with no restrictions;
they also agreed with the usefulness and benefits of this kind of
food (p-value < 0.001). The opposite association is also true,
meaning that students with restrictions to eating transgenic food
do not agree with their social benefits. In addition, students that
found diagnostic tests based on DNA technology to be a social
and health improvement for society also stated that access to
data from the human Genome Project facilitates the develop-
ment of diagnostic tests for cancer (p-value < 0.01).
After evaluating the qualitative data obtained from the inter-
views, it became clear that some students had restrictions to the
use of transgenic food, and that they were aware of the risks to
the environment, supporting their views about this issue in the
survey. Also, they showed more consistent knowledge of the
theme. Some of their opinions indicate that they continually
argue about the potential harm of transgenic food and would
prefer that their use was limited until it is guaranteed these
products to be harmless.
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s .
A. DE SÁ FREIRE ET AL.
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s . 151
Data crossing between answers given to “yes” or “no” questions and the students’ attitudes related to Biotechological advances.
2nd set of questions 1st set of questions bio t echnological advance
Eat transgenic food Transgenics
Restrictions (2) Disagree Agree Total p value
Yes 48 (59%) 41 (27%) 89 0.0001
No 33 (41%) 109 (73%) 142
81 150 231
Cancer test with genome (5) DNA diagnostics tests
Yes 14 (54%) 145 (79%) 159 0.0123
No 12 (46%) 39 (21%) 51
26 184 210
Cancer test with genome (5) Genome project
Yes 24 (73%) 156 (82%) 180 0.2266
No 9 (27%) 33 (18%) 42
33 189 222
Restrictions to genetic engineered me dicine (4) Disagree Agree
Yes 13 (39%) 57 (32%) 70 0.5472
No 20 (61%) 118 (68%) 138
33 175 208
Restrictions to genetic engineered me dicine (4) Disagree Agree
Yes 10 (30%) 55 (29%) 65 1.0000
No 23 (70%) 133 (71%) 156
33 188 221
Nevertheless, no other association between questions from
the first and the second sets were observed. It seems that stu-
dents are not confident enough about the concepts we were
arguing in relation to the Genome Project and genetic engi-
neering of medicines. These issues are obviously not deeply
discussed and debated in the media, and thus students had dif-
ficulty in understanding this kind of information. Lack of asso-
ciation was also observed in the joint distribution of the data on
detection of cancer test versus Genome Project (item 5, Table
Once again, qualitative analysis helped us to understand stu-
dents’ attitudes. When asked about the Genome Project, they
did not know what it really was. Their opinions showed a very
basic, narrow-minded and deterministic vision about the subject:
that the Genome Project was a fancy technique to fix people
with genetic or complex diseases. Consequently, they were
unable to correlate Genome Project to their uses. Questions
concerning students’ opinions about genetic engineering of
medicines clearly demonstrated that they did not have any idea
about the subject:
Student: By the way, those compounding pharmacies have
anything to do with that? [2 seconds] those drugstores where
you go and order, and you give the receipt and they make the
medicine you need?
Moreover, several students addressed the idea that they were
not prepared to understand the Biotechnological improvements
that come to society. They also pointed out difficulties with the
language used in the media to diffuse the scientific discoveries
and scientific knowledge. Most of students’ speeches addressed
the general idea that scientists speak their own complicated
language among themselves, creating confusing theories from
very simple hypotheses or scientific product:
Student 4: And they talk in such a language, a very difficult
Student 2: And they talk about transgenics...
Student 4: And they speak in a medical language.
Student 1: Scientific language.
Student 4: Yes, scientific, and they talk and one could say
“what did he say?” sometimes it’s a simple thing, easy, and they
make it complicated … the language … I think.
Student 3: It has been broadcasted, but their broadcasting is
Student 4: The language is very...
Finally, some students clearly showed their inability to
“speak Science” (Lemke, 1990), and their difficulties in under-
standing its basic concepts. Students also indicated that, most of
A. DE SÁ FREIRE ET AL.
the time, they tried to answer the survey and the questions in
the interviews with “guesstimations” because they did not
really know what they were discussing, especially concerning
the Genome Project and genetic engineering of medicines.
Many pieces of information concerning concepts in Bio-
technology are present in the daily news as well as in TV shows
and movies, such as the use of DNA in criminal justice cases or
paternity identification; and human cloning in films and in the
press (Jensen et al., 2008), for example, are generally perme-
ated with dangerous ideas and hope (such as finding the cure to
some genetic diseases just by concluding the Genome Project).
Also, there are contradictory views in the media and in movies
in relation to transgenics. All this misleading information usu-
ally creates confusion to the population in general. Most films,
for example, portray only the negative, the unethical and the
immoral aspect of human cloning, while the media points out
the fact that it can be used to save lives of people with genetic
diseases (Jensen et al., 2008). In spite of that, students have
clear opinions on a few matters. The results of the survey show
an approval of paternity tests (82%) and a rejection of human
cloning (62%), indicating that highly covered issues generally
follow the dominant and polar “good and bad” ideologies. Thus,
our data had internal “positive controls” that helped us analyze
the second set of answers.
The results seem to have been influenced by a popular Bra-
zilian soap opera, The Clone, exhibited a few years earlier
(2002). It emphasized the negative aspects of cloning, espe-
cially human cloning, and showed the possibility of human
cloning as something relatively easy to be done. A study using
a focal group of high schools students in Brazil analyzed this
soap opera corroborating our data indicating that, in fact, few
issues in Biotechnology and Molecular Genetics could be de-
bated properly and analyzed by students (Moreira & Mas-
sarani, 2008). Indeed, in the past years in Brazil, popular TV
shows have exhibited situations where families discuss the
paternity issue, and DNA test is the motif of these TV programs.
In addition, news programs frequently show paternity and
criminal cases were DNA tests could be applied to solve such
cases. Although such discussion has been raised by mass media,
scientific issues tend to show too superficially, leading to an
oversimplified view of Biotechnological issues (Massarani,
2005). In addition, the media often portrays a bias point of view
about scientific discoveries. Such approach does not allow peo-
ple in general to develop critical thinking about Biotechnology
(Jensen, 2008; Lind-Balta, 2006; Harms, 2002).
In this regard, it is clear that students were able to identify
some concepts linked to biotechnology a n d genet ic engineering,
such as transgenic food and DNA diagnostic tests. However,
this ability was restricted to these two themes while, for other
topics, the students’ ideas were limited to abstract and errone-
ous conceptions about issues like the Genome Project. Al-
though we did not ask this question explicitly, it was possible to
notice from the interviews, that the students acquire their notion
on biotechnology information through the media more often
than from school classes. It is assumed that school is probably a
better place to discuss these issues in-depth; that the educa-
tional institution has the most important role in individual de-
velopment and should provide an environment for the students
to develop understanding about new concepts and technologies.
But that is not what can be noticed most of the times schools do
not provide adequate infrastructure, classes have much more
students than it should, there is not sufficient time to teach what
is in the school program, and due to many issues (which will
not be discussed here) teachers are not well prepared to work
with the new issues concerning concepts in Biotechnology.
Other studies corroborate to this view. Ramón et al. (2008)
analyzed students’ knowledge about Biotechnology issues, and
Šorgo and Dolinšek (2009) focused his work on teachers’
knowledge about these topics. Both articles identified the need
of discussing the new issues in Genetics and Molecular Biology
in school, and teachers’ lack of fluency concerning Biotech-
nology issues. Our data endorse the conclusions of these previ-
ous publications. Possibly, the introduction of more Genetics
and Molecular Biology issues in school books could help stu-
dents and teachers cope with this new area.
Some basic concepts presented to students in the first year of
high school are necessary for the understanding of Genetics and
Evolution. Also, other Biotechnological issues need to be dis-
cussed in the third year. Assuming that the student learns from
what he knows about, it is necessary to present and discuss
objectively students’ difficulties about the concepts in Bio-
technology. Such difficulties are well exemplified in the stu-
dent’s speech: “Can we express ourselves sincerely? … we an-
swered based on what we could deduce here.” It is clear that
they have never discussed the new Biotechnologies properly.
So, they have no way of having concepts in Biotechnology
Unfortunately, the learning-teaching process is still based on
outdated educational books and mostly solely on lecture classes,
which tends to lead to a shallow notion of important Biotech-
nological concepts. It would, therefore, be a difficult task for
these students to behave as critical and active citizens in a con-
stantly changing society.
It was also noticed that students often mentioned that scien-
tific language sounds unfamiliar. This occurs because they have
not been in contact with scientific terminology. Thus, they
cannot understand some important relationships between some
Biotechnological advances, such as the Genome Project, ge-
netically engineered medicines and Genetic Vaccines. The su-
perficial level of students’ knowledge in such matters became
clear as they get in touch with the scientific language. It is
properly exemplified when a student expresses their miscon-
ception about genetically engineered medicine, making it a
synonym of designed-medicines in drugstores.
Teachers were questioned about their sources of information
for class planning (Xavier et al., 2006) and it was verified that
their major source was the school textbook, which is used by
students for classes as well as for studying for tests. The text-
book, as told previously, does not present up-to-date and con-
Finally, we understand that our approach have limitations
since we studied only three schools, although in different loca-
tions in Rio de Janeiro state. However, it is difficult to extrapo-
late our results to other states in Brazil and even other munici-
palities in Rio. Also, we tried to better comprehend differences
between public and private schools and, in our hands, we did
not capture such differences that could also be accounted for
small sample size we used specially concerning the number of
private students enrolled. Nevertheless, our data are consistent
since we used different methodologies and have been corrobo-
rated by others in Brazil (Massarani, 2005).
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s .
A. DE SÁ FREIRE ET AL.
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s . 153
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vances through TV shows or the media, they still demonstrate
misconceptions. The scientific language is a barrier because of
the lack of an in-depth discussion about scientific discoveries in
biotechnology. Anyway, the results presented herein are con-
sistent with the lack of discussion of biotechnological issues in
school classes. Therefore, changes show to be not only urgent
but also extremely important.
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