High School Teachers Learning How To Add Genetics and Genomes to the Classroom

A series of grants is enabling a non-profit organization focused on genetics (the study of heredity) and genomics (the study of genes) to expand coverage of those subjects in American high schools. The Jackson Laboratory recently received $1.3 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to teach educators and outfit their classrooms appropriately over the next five years through a program called "Teaching the Genome Generation."

As part of the program, teachers take a week-long course during the summer to gain subject matter expertise and learn how to develop lessons in three areas:

  • Methods for isolating, amplifying and detecting DNA;
  • Computational methods for analyzing DNA, RNA or amino acid sequences; and
  • Ethics involved in DNA testing (both in the classroom and in the community).

As those lessons are taught in the classroom, students conduct classroom experiments, collect and analyze real data and discuss the ethical complexities of research. As part of the program the laboratory provides lab equipment, reagents and supplies for those activities.

The teachers also have access to mentoring and guidance through a community of Jackson Laboratory-trained instructors, including alumni of the course and other experts.

The lessons can be integrated into introductory biology, honors and AP courses, though the program organizers have said that they prefer interdisciplinary modes of teaching with ties to computer science, social sciences and health.

According to the organization, a pilot program has trained 47 teachers so far, reaching about 1,200 students. Development of the program has been supported through grants from Jane's Trust, which gave $75,000, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, which gave $100,000. With the new NIH grant, Teaching the Genome Generation is expected to reach up to 3,000 students each year between 2016 and 2021.

"As genetics and genomics take on a greater role in medicine, we need to prepare young people to be knowledgeable healthcare consumers and to prepare them for careers in this growing field," said Charles Wray, director of Jackson Laboratory Courses and Conferences, in a prepared statement. "We believe our 'teach the teachers' approach is the most efficient and effective way to improve the quality of genetics education."

This summer's weeks of teaching in Bar Harbor, ME and Farmington, CT are already filled. However, Program Director Michael McKernan is maintaining a queue of interested teachers for the 2017 program year. Also, those who have an existing molecular biology laboratory can also contact McKernan to discuss opportunities to implement the Teaching the Genome Generation curriculum in their schools. His email is [email protected].

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.