Genetics education in the genomics age

I was once lucky enough to teach genetics to an advanced placement biology class in high school and was able to teach Mendelian genetics after teaching about DNA, RNA, etc. I also had my students read Huxley's Brave New World. In the Mendel unit, they did fruit fly crosses and were to use their results to respond to Mendel's letter about the seven "inheritable units" he studied. They had to identify and name the mutation they were studying, then follow its inheritance through two generations. What mattered in the final analysis was how they interpreted their data in comparison with Mendel's predictions. Naturally, I chose mutations that didn't seem to fit predictions.

These students learned many things, including how not to drop a microscope on the floor, how not to kill their flies with the ether, how to plan their lives around a biological experiment, how to gather and record data, and how to interpret data based on an hypothesis. They also had a great time. I was very busy maintaining the same crosses in parallel, so they wouldn't have any excuses if "the flies all died".

Later, discussing the genetic basis for many disease conditions, they were able to learn how difficult it is to eradicate a recessive disease gene and how many "bad" genes there are. After reading Huxley, they had a choice: write an essay on how the ideas in Brave New World fit with today's genetic knowledge or relate the ideas in the book to their own life. Several of them chose the latter, including one with Type I diabetes and one with a degenerative neuromuscular condition. We all learned a lot when we read each other's essays.

We also did practice AP exams and essay writing, generally outside of school hours. These kids were determined to learn.

All of the six students took the AP exam and one had a high score. Of course, I was never able to find out how well they did on the genetics portion and I couldn't change much of their other knowledge of biology in a single year. On the books, my teaching was unsuccessful.

But everyone of the students was very proud of what they had learned. And I was pleased that my somewhat unusual teaching techniques were well accepted.

So, as I collect ways of teaching genetics, I remember that one doesn't always have to teach in an historical sequence to get the job done.

Meanwhile, here's a source of basic genetic information (the Mendelian kind still being taught in schools) for those looking for reasonably interesting learning on the Web. Start with the quiz if you wish and check out the genetics basics lessons after. None of this is up to current Internet teaching standards, but at least the stuff is not totally boring.

Marie Godfrey, PhD


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