Medicines as storylines for teaching science and more

Country in Focus Article #3: The Catalan Foundation for Research and Innovation organizes the Amgen Teach Workshops "Science behind Medicines" from October 2016 to July 2017.

We have designed a workshop to give high-school teachers some tools for their classroom based on such a multifaceted subject as medicines. In an educational system that pigeonholes events into waterproof categories, and where science and the humanities are kept well apart from one another, it is easy to lose sight that the world is a much more complicated place. Anyone following a thread that starts with some particular historical event will find that it quickly becomes entangled with all sorts of issues that do not belong to the same category. History and geography go together easily, but what about history and chemistry? Literature and biology? Music and materials science?

Introducing medicines as a starting point, a lesson can turn into all kinds of subjects, not necessarily within the area of experimental sciences. The teachers attending the course are science teachers, so they expect to be able to apply some practical tools to their classroom. For this reason, we have included sessions that focus on chemistry, biology and statistics. A mix of case studies and hands-on exercises gives teachers new ideas and activities for their classroom. This is the most evident outcome, and it is what brings the participants to the course.

Yet, the opening lecture does not go into any of these subjects, or barely mentions them. To show that medicines cut through any field of knowledge, I discuss three other issues in the introduction to the course.

First, I talk about history. Medicines have not always been the same, and it can be argued that there were very few real medicines before the late 19th century. Folk medicine based on plants has either progressed into the chemistry of active ingredients or stayed in the fringes of science. Herbs such as parsley or peppermint were considered medicines in the past, and now they are just ingredients to some of our favourite foods. Not long ago people had to buy yoghourts in drugstores, then they became food for children and lately they are in a category of foods with health claims – substantiated or not.

I also discuss philosophy. The development of medicines helps to understand many philosophical concepts, particularly in epistemology and theory of knowledge. A widespread deficit in the basic knowledge of what is a proof or what is a piece of data underlies the scientific illiteracy that plagues even the more sophisticated societies today. Medicines are also a good starting point to debate ethics, since they involve tests with animals and with people.

A final point in the opening lecture is economics. The economics of drug discovery and commercialization is a subject that relates to everybody, because we are all users of our local health systems. Other issues related to medicines include philanthropy, public-private partnerships to develop drugs for neglected diseases and a new approach to investing that seeks to include social impact in the investment criteria. The purpose of the organizers, the Catalan Foundation for Research and Innovation, is to provide a starting point that every teacher can use to achieve the best results in the classroom, as well as to blur the long-standing divide between science and the humanities.


Jesús Purroy

Course coordinator, Science behind Medicines, 2016-2017


More information about training activities in Spain, here.