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Cancer: Biology and Beyond. A Thematic Course Designed for Non-Science Majors Pamela K. Hanson Department of Biology, Birmingham-Southern College. The course schedule is divided into four major themes: -The Origins of Cancer -Diagnosing Cancer -Treating Cancer -Preventing Cancer

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Cancer: Biology and Beyond

A Thematic Course Designed for Non-Science Majors

Pamela K. Hanson

Department of Biology, Birmingham-Southern College

  • The course schedule is divided into four major themes: -The Origins of Cancer
  • -Diagnosing Cancer
  • -Treating Cancer
  • -Preventing Cancer
  • There is an exam on each of these topics, and each exam is worth 10% of the final grade in the course. Quizzes and Participation are each worth 5% of the final grade. Laboratory exercises, worksheets, and a lab practical at the end of the semester account for 25% of each student’s grade. 15% of the final grade is based on an individual’s final project, and 10% of the grade is based on an oral presentation about a treatment for cancer.
  • The texts used in this course are:
  • Weinberg, R.A., 1998 One Renegade Cell: How
  • Cancer Begins. Basic Books, New York.
  • Randall, R.W., and S. Goodwin, 2003 Biology of
  • Cancer. Benjamin Cummings, San Francisco.
  • What You Need to Know about CancerScientific
  • American, September 1996.

Students choose and research an interdisciplinary topic such as:

Cancer Diagnosis:

Techniques and Psychological Impact

The Biology and Psychology of Cancer Pain

Ethical Implications of Genetic Testing

to Evaluate Cancer Risk

Smoking Bans:

Balancing Public Health and Civil Rights

Each student submits a 10-15 page paper on the topic and shares their findings with the rest of the class through a PowerPoint presentation.

The nature of the electromagnetic spectrum is discussed as students learn about tumor imaging.

Laboratory exercises include a mock ELISA to test for the presence of tumor markers/antigens.

Students also use prepared slides from Carolina Biological Supply to visualize cancerous tissues and gain an appreciation for the complexity of histology.

normal chronic



Images from:

  • Although the texts and laboratory exercises were generally well received, a traditional textbook and detailed lab manual would make the course more cohesive. The current handouts will be revised and assembled into a lab manual during Summer 2005.
  • During the revision process, the following laboratory exercises will be incorporated into the lab manual:
  • The sunscreen lab will be enhanced by having students use a spectrophotometer to measure the UV absorption of sunscreens with varying SPFs.
  • Assistant Professor of Library Science Stacey Thornberry has developed a GIS module exploring lifestyle choices and cancer prevalence.
  • In conjunction with Assistant Professor of Chemistry Scott Dorman students will attempt to quantify the potentially carcinogenic plasticizers that migrate from plastic wrap into vegetable oil when microwaved.
  • Students will sequence a mutant BRCA1 allele and use bioinformatics tools such as BLAST to compare the mutant sequence to the sequences entered in the NCBI database.
  • These new lab modules are designed to achieve two goals:
  • -increased
  • technology use
  • -increased emphasis
  • on the process
  • of science
  • Image from

“Cancer—Biology and Beyond” was developed as a non-majors course that fulfills Birmingham-Southern’s general education requirement that every student complete at least one laboratory science. In addition to meeting general education requirements, “Cancer—Biology and Beyond” is a 1Y Foundations course. Enrollment in 1Y courses is limited to first-year students, and these courses are designed to foster a sense of intellectual community and intellectual engagement by incorporating elements such as:

-collaborative learning practices

-oral communication

-peer teaching

-quantitative methods

-technology use


The course description in the College Catalog is:

A study of the development, progression, and treatment of cancer. The fundamentals of cell biology are learned by exploring the differences between normal and cancerous cells. In addition, the psychological and socioeconomic impacts of the disease are studied. Three hours of lecture and one three-hour laboratory per week.

This section of the course focuses on lifestyle choices that influence cancer risk. The topics discussed include:

-smoking and tobacco products

-sun exposure

-cancer “causing” foods

-cancer “fighting” foods

A laboratory module on sunscreen is also included. Using a kit from Carolina Biological Supply, students explore the effects of sunscreen on preventing DNA damage. They begin by spreading a small amount of UV-sensitive yeast onto YPD-agar. The plate is covered with plastic wrap. Half of the plastic covering is “treated” with sunscreen, and the plate is exposed to sunlight for 25 minutes. After two days of incubation students observe how well the yeast survived in the presence and absence of sunscreen.

Students may choose to test the effects of other forms of sun protection, including sunglasses and clothing.

The class is divided into pairs, and each pair of students is assigned a specific cancer treatment. After conducting extensive library research on the topic, students present their findings to the rest of the class. The treatments discussed include:

• Cisplatin • Radiation Therapy

• Immunotherapy • Taxol

• Camptothecin • Gleevec

• Angiogenesis Inhibitors

Taxol Cisplatin Camptothecin

I would like to thank Birmingham-Southern College for supporting the development of this course and associated laboratory modules through summer stipends.

During lecture students learn many fundamental concepts in biology including the nature of macromolecules, the central dogma of molecular biology, and the cell cycle. Students also explore more cancer-specific topics such as mutagenic and non-mutagenic carcinogens, cellular immortality, and metastasis.

These topics are complemented with several laboratory exercises, such as:

Extraction of DNA from Onions

This exercise reinforces student understanding of the chemical nature of macromolecules as they use various chemicals to separate DNA from proteins and lipids.

The Ames Test

Students use the Ames Test to characterize potential mutagens. Some of the concepts covered during this experiment include:

-How do you develop a hypothesis?

-How do you test a hypothesis?

-What are controls?

Onion Mitosis

Students observe mitosis

in normal and irradiated root tips.

They visualize the stages of

mitosis as well as broken


Onion mitosis pictures are from:

Future Directions


Origins of Cancer




Course Description


Final Projects

Student Feedback

  • So far, the course has only been offered once, in the Spring of 2003. The class was composed of 14 female students and 3 male students, all freshmen. At the end of the term, their self-reported majors were:
  • 6 Natural Science/Mathematics
  • 3 Humanities
  • 3 Social Sciences
  • 2 Fine or Performing Arts
  • 3 Business/Economics
  • In anonymous evaluations, students rated the organization of the course and the influence on their critical thinking and reasoning as slightly better than the campus-wide average. (Please note that the statistical significance of these differences were not evaluated)
  • Selected comments from anonymous student evaluations:
  • I wouldn’t mind a little more in depth explanation of concepts and linkages between them.
  • Labs were wonderful (really liked the sunscreen one).
  • Weinberg’s book explained some complex cell biology in simple, understandable terms.
  • Scientific American was interesting and invaluable.
  • I often lost track of where we were, because there was no traditional textbook.
  • I think the tests should not be as difficult as they are. I am not a biology major so the wording confused me.
  • You do not have to have a scientific mind to do well in this class.