Modern genetics activities for a modern world: Emphasizing genetics literacy in K-12 education

Kids doing an experiment at a table

An afterschool science club. Photo courtesy of Abigail Howell.

Meet Mrs. Batty, a middle school science teacher in Phoenix, Arizona, who also runs an afterschool science club for kids. While my recent conversation with her took place over Zoom due to COVID-19, I try to envision it taking place in Batty's classroom, full of science equipment (most of which she's bought herself) and Batman-themed gifts from students in reference to her last name. She’s enthusiastic about science and learning and always willing to go above and beyond to help her students.

I'm talking with her to understand how genetics is taught in K-12 classrooms. The structure of DNA was discovered less than 70 years ago, and today we're able to sequence an entire human genome in a matter of days and even to edit genomes ourselves using technology such as CRISPR-Cas9. I'm curious to know whether the way we teach genetics has advanced just as quickly as our scientific understanding of the subject.

I start by asking Batty about the genetics concepts she teaches and how she teaches them. She describes genetics as being a difficult, abstract concept to teach. “Anything I can do hands-on, I try to,” Batty explains. She describes various activities she uses with her middle school students: pipe-cleaner chromosome models, DNA extractions with fruit, and mythical-creatures-mash-up Punnett squares. This last one surprises me. I don't remember learning about Punnett squares until high school.

Mrs. Batty“I also didn't see them until high school,” Batty says. “That's the problem. Arizona's state science standards don't really list specifics. When I started teaching, I didn't do Punnett squares because I didn't use them until high school. But then I noticed on the science AIMS [Arizona's standardized state test], they had a Punnett square!”

“So Punnett squares were on the AIMS but they're not specifically mentioned in Arizona's standards?” I ask.

“No, they’re really vague. And that's my frustration about standards.”

Batty then pulls up the Arizona science standards that reference genetics and lists them.

Adopted in October 2018, the Arizona state science standards aim to make students “scientifically literate” and “college and career ready.” Batty and I talk through the standards relevant to genetics, and when we come to the standard “Communicate how advancements in technology have furthered the field of genetic research and use evidence to argue about the positive and negative effects of genetic research on human lives,” I ask what that is supposed to involve. Batty isn’t sure.

In the absence of any concrete guidance from the standards, Batty explains, she nevertheless attempts to discuss genetic technology and genetics in society. “We use clips from [the personal genomics company] 23andMe, just explaining some of the things they do, after we've covered the basics. But when they start getting into the SNPs [single nucleotide polymorphisms], that seems to be where the kids' brain capacity maxes out,” she says .

So Batty has already gone beyond what the standards dictate, because they really don't give her a lot to go on. How should she decide which genetic technologies to discuss? Which ethical discourses should she include, and which would be frowned upon by the district? How does she delicately approach the political implications of current genetic technology in one of the most contentious eras of American politics? The rapid advancements in genetics technology, combined with unclear state standards and high-stakes standardized testing, makes teaching and learning about genetics difficult in a K-12 classroom.

Glaringly absent from the state standards is the concept of genetic literacy: having the knowledge and ability to understand and make decisions about how genetics influences your everyday life. Such decisions may include whether to pursue genetic counseling in light of the results of an at-home DNA testing kit; whether the privacy risks of sharing your genetic data outweigh the potential health benefits; whether consuming genetically modified foods is safe; and whether the results of a study identifying a gene for alcoholism can be used to develop medical treatments or are sensationalized and unreliable. Rather than rote memorization of content, genetic literacy education focuses primarily on critical reasoning skills related to genetics and its everyday implications.

Arizona’s state science standards only briefly and vaguely touch on the sociocultural components of genetic literacy, as in the standard quoted above, while completely neglecting all epistemic components, such as the certainty and uncertainty of genetic information and the (mis)representation of genetic knowledge in the media. However, these standards are still marginally better than the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which leave out both societal implications of genetics and epistemic knowledge.

For a better example of standards that cover all aspects of genetic literacy, I turned to a seminal article on genetic literacy by Dirk Jan Boerwinkel and his colleagues, “Reaching a Consensus on the Definition of Genetic Literacy that Is Required from a Twenty-First-Century Citizen.” The article defines the purpose of genetic literacy as to supply people with the knowledge to make informed decisions relating to genetics. With its emphasis on genetics in societal contexts, this framework doesn’t dwell on cellular mechanisms such as transcription and meiosis. Knowing that different genes are switched on and off in different cells and that each parent contributes a set of genes to an offspring is sufficient. Instead, this framework focuses more heavily on concepts such as the complex relationship between genes, environment, and traits (knowledge of which is needed, for example, to understand the nuances of media reports on “the discovery of the gene for such-and-such”).

Using such a genetic literacy framework, educators can design modern DNA activities that put current genetics theory into practice.

Boerwinkel and his colleagues also emphasize developing skills for “managing uncertainty” regarding genetic information, which include appreciating uncertainty due to false positives and false negatives or from the complexity of the gene-environment-trait interplay. Their framework also addresses the subject of race and genetics, including it as a key conceptual knowledge component. With the rise of at-home genetic testing kits for ancestry and genealogy, consumers should have a complete understanding of the sociological and biological meanings of race and the political issues related to them when interpreting their test results.

Using such a genetic literacy framework, educators can design modern DNA activities that put current genetics theory into practice. The framework model focuses on situating each knowledge component within a case study in which genetic knowledge is relevant for decision-making. Case-based approaches are an ideal pedagogical model to highlight the real-world relevance of new theories. In addition to being focused on case studies, the structure of the framework makes it easy for instructors to add new elements and explore new cases. The adaptability of the framework is important for a field in which new technologies are constantly being developed. When the article was published (2017), the CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing technology was not yet widely known among the public, but it is easy to adapt it as a case study due to the flexibility of the framework.

A great example of a modern DNA activity that utilizes the genetics literacy framework is “Mapping Genes to Traits in Dogs Using SNPs.” This activity is centered on the dog Tasha, whose DNA was used to create a complete canine genome in 2005. The activity leads participants through the process of identifying single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in multiple dog genomes, introducing how the process of a genome-wide association study (GWAS) can help scientists identify what genes are responsible for what traits. This activity addresses conceptual knowledge components outlined in the framework (such as genetic variation in populations, complex traits, and gene interactions) as well as societal and epistemic knowledge components (how a GWAS might be used to identify human traits and testing the significance of these findings with a chi-squared exercise).

Some schools in Arizona only teach middle-school science as an elective, Batty points out, so students there are exposed to any kind of science, let alone these kinds of concepts, once a week on average. She suggests that if regular DNA activities aren't an option, you can sneak science and genetic literacy into writing or social studies classes. She gives a great example involving her husband, a social studies teacher. He had his class use the Ebola outbreak in a case study of how current events were presented in the media. What (his class asked) is the evidence for the efficacy of the treatments discussed in the media? Are these studies double-blind? Who's writing these articles, and what is their intent? Are they trying to inform, scare, or sell something? This activity beautifully exercises and strengthens students’ epistemic knowledge components of genetic and scientific literacy, all without involving a single beaker!

Students making a sign board.

In my own outreach work at Batty's school, I aim to incorporate more societal and epistemic knowledge components in my activities. Every year I've been a part of the program, I've led the classic “Crime Scene DNA Analysis” activity, in which students use enzymes to chop up DNA from a crime scene and DNA from three suspects, then compare the breakage patterns. But I've never discussed the shortcomings of the technology or how the results could be misconstrued (e.g., twins having the same banding pattern, DNA being at the scene without it being the victim's or suspect's, etc.). Additionally, the materials required for this activity are expensive and can be hard to obtain for educators in bulk. Designing modern DNA activities for classrooms will require utilizing cheap, accessible materials like those in the GWAS activity (paper cards) mentioned above to make them accessible for all classrooms.

When developing modern DNA activities, special attention should be dedicated to topics that can directly affect students and their privacy. While having students trace their traits (eye color, blood type, widow's peak) can personalize the concept of inheritance, these types of activities open the door to sometimes uncomfortable conversations about parentage for some students. Additionally, conversations of race and ethnicity require careful instructor training and preparation to be handled correctly. Case studies of genetic diseases including cystic fibrosis, cancer, or Alzheimer's should also be approached with caution. Students may be dealing with family members who are affected by these diseases, and focusing case studies on them can be upsetting and distract from learning. It is the responsibility of the instructor and guest scientists like me to design genetics activities that are suitable for all audiences in order to increase genetic literacy for informed decision making.

Batty is excited that the new version of the Arizona standardized state science test, set to begin field testing in the 2020-2021 school year, will focus more on testing critical thinking skills rather than memorizing facts. We're both excited for me to return to her classroom this spring, to share cutting-edge research with the students that would normally take years to trickle down to textbooks and standard curriculum. I'm aiming not only to teach DNA activities that can increase a student's confidence in evidence-based decision making, but also to make science fun and exciting—all with the hope of equipping the next generation of citizens to act knowledgably when it comes to issues involving genetics!

NCSE Gratudate Student Outreach Fellow Abigail Howell
Short Bio

Abigail Howell is a doctoral student in molecular and cellular biology at Arizona State University studying mutation rates in ciliates and greatly enjoys researching and participating in education outreach. She is also a 2020 NCSE Graduate Student Outreach Fellow.