MSU to help students learn genomics and evolution

October 27, 2014
Joseph Krajcik

Joseph Krajcik

The study of human genes has dramatically changed how health issues have been explained and treated during the past 20 years. But educators have done little to teach future generations about the concepts behind those scientific breakthroughs.

Michigan State University will help solve this problem by creating learning materials about genomics and evolution for the nation’s middle school students and their local communities. MSU researchers, in collaboration with the University of Michigan and other partners, are using a $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to introduce the program in Detroit and Flint.

“It’s not only children – studies show most Americans do not fully understand modern concepts in genetics such as the importance of both genetic and environmental factors in shaping behavior and disease risk,” said Louise Mead, education director at the BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action at MSU, and a partner on the project.

The new curriculum will blend formal classroom instruction and informal community-based learning to give both students and residents opportunities to apply ideas about gene-environment interactions and natural selection to their lives. For example, participants will learn how lactose intolerance develops in people and what privacy issues are considered for maintaining DNA samples from newborn blood screenings.

Collaborators include the CREATE for STEM Institute at MSU, the University of Michigan School of Public Health, Detroit Public Schools, Flint Community Schools and the Concord Consortium, a nonprofit research organization in Massachusetts. In addition, museums, libraries and other organizations will provide venues for learning activities that help increase parent engagement and public knowledge. Partners include the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the Detroit Public Library and Friends of Parkside in Detroit; and the Sloan Museum, the Flint Public Library and Community-Based Organization Partners in Flint.

“This project supports our goals in promoting diversity in the science community by stimulating interest in science careers and narrowing the achievement gap in science for underrepresented minorities and women,” said Jessie Kilgore, assistant superintendent of Flint Community Schools.

This project builds upon previous work led by MSU Professor Joseph Krajcik and a team at the University of Michigan to develop a modern genomics curriculum for high school biology classes. The research made it clear, Krajcik said, that high school students need a prior foundation linking the concepts of genetics, gene-environment relationships, evolution and human health. The Next Generation Science Standards, now being implemented by many U.S. science teachers, emphasize science practices that help even young students explain complicated phenomena around them.

“Fortunately the NGSS, which include the core ideas of evolution and natural selection, present us with an opportunity to develop curriculum materials for middle school students,” said Krajcik, principal investigator on the project. “As students move from upper elementary to higher grade levels they can appreciate that human illness need not only be caused by germs and that a combination of environmental factors, poor health habits and genetic influences may also be at work.”