Teaching Genetics Without the Mumbo Jumbo

Teaching Genetics Without the Mumbo Jumbo

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted September 1, 2008 in DNA in General

A study in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching suggests that primary school students should be introduced to scientific concepts in “everyday English” first before being forced to memorize vocabulary.

The results reveal that although learning the language of science remains a primary hurdle, students taught using our content-first approach demonstrated an improved conceptual and linguistic understanding of science.

http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/61NQKth55OL._SS500_.jpgHow would this apply to teaching genetics? My son’s current favorite series of books is Geronimo Stilton and in Geronimo and the Gold Medal Mystery, a professor conducts “extremely secret experiments in genetics.” Genetics was explained as:

…the science that deals with the hereditary characteristics of species in the plant and animal world.

Not quite everyday English. How might this be rephrased?

Genetics is the science that looks at how parents pass along certain traits to their children.

Is that too simplistic? How would you explain genetics in one sentence?

via Stanford News Service



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Comment by Marie Godfrey Subscribed to comments via email

Genetics is the study of the operating instructions for life.

To this could be added: Scientists look at how the instructions are passed from one generation to the next, how instructions differ from one living thing to another, and how the instructions work.

For a “young” audience, something modern–operating instructions–could be useful. Note that the second sentence distinguishes the various components of genetic study: inheritance, form, function.

Hi Marie, So nice to hear from you and what an excellent explanation you gave!

Comment by N/A

This is how I would explain genetics in one sentence:

A person inherites 50% of their genes from one parent and the way the genes are expressed or not expressed, which leads to the way you behave for the most part, how you look, why you have a genetic health condition and risk, how athletic you are, are influenced by envrionmental factors and genes becoming expressed and silenced.

Comment by Barry Subscribed to comments via email

I’ll cheat and try two. How about:

Genetics is the study of DNA and how it is passed down from parents to their kids. DNA has the blueprints for making and running a living thing.

Comment by N/A

I’ll fix it for you. Genetics is the study of DNA that is passed down from parents to their offspring and allows for making and running life a possibility.

Comment by Barry Subscribed to comments via email

Thanks, I like it. Unfortunately it bumped the grade level from around 5 to 11…

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Comment by Trisha Subscribed to comments via email

Glad to see you’re back Hsien!

I have no idea how to explain it in one sentence. But explaining things more simply so that they can be introduced at a younger age is really important!

Comment by N/A

Being able to explain complicated medical and science information in easy to understand terms and sentences is very hard to do. I have a full-time job where I do this…actually, two full-time jobs where I do this. Being able to explain a term that I can’t even pronounce is hard to do.

Comment by Barry Subscribed to comments via email

I totally agree. My full time job is to answer people’s genetics questions in a way they can understand and to train scientists to be able to do communicate science effectively to the public in writing and in person. It is very difficult to do.

Comment by N/A

Wow, how did you get this type of job? Would you be able to share the name of this company? I have a few questions from time-to-time that I would like to be answered.

Comment by Barry Subscribed to comments via email

I stumbled into it. I had been laid off by my start up right after 9/11. Of course no one was hiring and so I began casting a wider and wider net. What I found was this position at Stanford. It is a liaison position between Stanford and The Tech Museum in San Jose. I created the Stanford at The Tech program and run the Tech website, Understanding Genetics. I also was a big part of the Genetics exhibition, Genetics: Technology with a Twist.

Comment by N/A

I know the feeling. I’ve been laid off from three jobs that I’ve had in my past. All three of them were factory jobs.

When I graduated last May, I was looking for a research position but was not able to get hired at any of the biotech companies located in my own state or states next to the one I lived in. It was so frustrating. So I went three months with no income at all. I was flat broke. So I started looking for jobs where I could use my love for medicine and science and earn money. The only way I could do this was getting hired as a health writer. My experiences after graduating college has turned me off from becoming a scientists. If I have a hard time just getting a lab tech job, just imagine how hard it would be to get a job with a Ph.D. in a biotech field.

So now I make a living writing about healthcare technology, genetic health conditions, medical science topics and cancer and alternative medicine. So now I’m just focusing on keeping these jobs and get a degree in a healthcare field and forget about being a scientist.

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Comment by Marie Godfrey Subscribed to comments via email

Our topic has switched a bit, and I thought other readers of the “what can you do with a degree in genetics thread” would appreciate the following.

When I sold my home recently, two trucks from 1-800-GOTJUNK pulled up to remove my remaining items. Chatting with the boss, I learned that she has a PhD in genetics. What interesting jobs we end up with. And I thought all along that my lack of professional work in genetics was because I married a geologist!

Comment by N/A

Sorry for taking this thread off-topic.

I was depressed for a while with not getting a job with a bio tech company, but I’m more happy now then I ever was before. I’m able to pay the bills with sitting at the computer and being able to think for myself. I’m able to research what I feel is the most important on the topic, I get to chose my own topics (not always the case, but most often), and I don’t have to worry about the boss getting a grant (the company suceeding) so I can put food on the table and have a roof over my head.

The sad truth is that there are more people with a PhD then there are jobs available.

Comment by Marie Godfrey Subscribed to comments via email

Hi, simplicity lovers, me again. I have been intrigued by Hsien Hsien’s question about explaining genetics in a simply way, and–while I have not found a simple sentence defining genetics–I did find a site for kids that explains genes and some inherited disorders very well. Check out: http://kidshealth.org/kid/health_problems/birth_defect/what_is_gene.html

I’ll try it out on my 5-year-old granddaughter. Maybe the explanation will be simpler than the one I tried when she and her friends wondered what the balls with letters on them (A,T,G,C) were. They were inside a giveaway item I picked up at a conference.

Comment by sol

hi all. my 8 year old already understands a bit of genetics, a little about DNA, evolution, and paleogenetic trees. As a homeschooling mom with an MS in Biochemistry, I find that it is quite useless to explain “genetics” as a field of study when your audience wants to know about dinosaurs. So I rather would like to explain dinosaurs and touch genetics along the way.


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