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Life lessons in genetics, race and social justice

Science Education Partnership’s free, open-source curriculum units help high schoolers separate bias from biology
A photo of a female teacher showing two female students a DNA double helix
Stock photo by Getty Images

For decades, high school teachers used Gregor Mendel and his pea plants to teach kids in ninth grade on up the fundamentals of genetics.

Today’s kids don’t care beans about those peas. They want to understand what the science is behind race, racism and genetics. And their teachers are desperate to figure out how to teach this complex topic without accidentally stepping onto a sociopolitical land mine.

Fortunately, “Race, Racism and Genetics” is the name of a curriculum unit created by the staff of the Science Education Partnership, or SEP, at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Its aim? To help high school science teachers navigate the sticky wicket that is race and genetics.

“It’s a complicated subject, but kids want to know,” said Dr. Danielle Vermaak, a high school chemistry, physics and biotechnology teacher at Seattle’s Lincoln High School. “Our students have been going through this country’s racial reckoning like all of us, and they are very hungry to learn more. Kids want to know: If race is a social construct, why do people look different? Is it not genetic?”

SEP’s eight-lesson sequence on the topic, for use in classrooms or remote learning, is just one of a handful of free, open-source lessons the team created. Since 1991, SEP has provided high school biology and biotech teachers in Washington state with tools, like loaner lab kits, that teach teens how to do science. The coronavirus put the kibosh on hands-on learning, so SEP put its lessons online, including their new content.

And with that, the Hutch’s science education program went national.

Photo of Jeanne Chowning holding a large model of a DNA double helix
Award-winning science educator Dr. Jeanne Chowning said researching and writing the new SEP lessons has been “extremely meaningful.” Photo courtesy of Caren Brinkema

“We still wanted to support teachers, so we converted our curriculum to online versions and developed this new curriculum,” said Dr. Jeanne Chowning, senior director of science education. “We have about 15 teachers who are formally field testing it and many more who have used it with their students.”

The new curriculum, some of it years in the works, teaches the basics of biology, DNA and biotechnology, but communicates the science through a larger, societal lens. It’s not the first program of its kind, but students could not be more thrilled.

"I believe that the most important topics I’ve ever learned in school were covered in the Race and Human Genetics unit," one of Vermaak’s students said in a class evaluation form. Another said they might forget specifics from some lessons, but “big concepts like race not being genetic will stick with me.”

Debunking racist theories

Chowning called SEP’s Race, Racism and Genetics lessons “the most important piece we’ve done.” Though created on a shoestring budget (two other units were funded by the National Institutes of Health), SEP’s faculty did extensive reading, research and discussion to prepare. 

“We talked about this for four years before we even set pen to paper,” Chowning said. “That was necessary. And we talked with a lot of other people, even with colleagues in education at the National Human Genome Research Institute. They brought in thinkers from all over the country to talk about these issues.”

Chowning said the unit isn’t designed to replace Mendelian genetics, which she said is still important to teach students.

“What we’re trying to do is address some of the complexities of human genetic variation, which builds on, but is more complicated and nuanced, than what Mendel and his peas can teach us,” she said.

Teachers, who have long requested help in communicating these nuances, also did a considerable amount of pre-reading and pre-work, Chowning said, since they needed to be well-versed in the subject matter and know how to encourage discourse.

“Part of the work with the teachers was creating an environment in your classroom where you can have difficult conversations and people will disagree,” Chowning said. “You have to know how to do that with respect and civility.” 

pull quote photo

'What we’re trying to do is address some of the complexities of human genetic variation, which builds on, but is more complicated and nuanced, than what Mendel and his peas can teach us.'

Fred Hutch's Science Education Partnership's Senior Educator Dr. Jeanne Chowning

Photo of Hanako Osuga (second from left) surrounded by high school science students. All are wearing white lab coats.
SEP’s program coordinator Hanako Osuga, demonstrating at center, works with a class of Science Explorers during the summer of 2019. The weighty subject matter of SEP's new Race, Racism and Genetics unit "balloons out quickly," Osuga said. "That’s part of the reason some teachers felt hesitant to take this on." Photo courtesy of Caren Brinkema

Chowning, an award-winning science educator, said the lessons in Race, Racism and Genetics include the basics of genetics and heredity and variation. But most importantly, they emphasize that race is a poor proxy for ancestry and not inherently a genetically meaningful category. 

Human beings are extremely similar genetically, but the idea that small variations in skin color or eye shape or hair texture represent major human differences has been embedded into ideologies underlying policies for centuries. And to the detriment of many.

“Students learn how implicit bias and structural racism can connect to policies that impact biology,” Chowning said. “For example, health inequities that result from these policies can be mistakenly viewed as resulting primarily from biological differences across racial groups — despite those differences being mostly superficial.”

In reality, Chowning said, racism can impact biological outcomes due to the “embodiment of longterm stress, the effects of differential access to quality care, bias in treatment, and much more.”

Teaching all of this requires an understanding of science, she said, but also of the sociopolitical, cultural and historical dimensions of race and racism.

“There’s just so much nuance,” Chowning said.

SEP’s Program Coordinator and Data Systems Lead Hanako Osuga, whose high school science teacher used SEP’s materials when she was in school, agreed that folding all the intricacies of DNA, evolution, race and systemic racism into a series of short lessons was extremely challenging.

“You have to cover basic genetics and get into human genetic variation and what that means,” she said. "You also have to talk about historical evolutionary patterns and the history of racial categories that were created in large part to justify the oppression and enslavement of Black and Indigenous people in this country. It balloons out quickly. That’s part of the reason some teachers felt hesitant to take this on.”

But it’s crucial that kids understand it, Chowning said. It’s also important to teach students that along with giving us medical breakthroughs and miracle vaccines, science has done real harm.

“In one lesson, we look at the scientists who were involved in creation of the race idea as well as others trying to justify racist actions with science,” she said. “We try to pair those with people who were working against those ideas. We also try to show how all of this ripples through to the present, where people are becoming much more aware of biased medical tests and of race norming (tests that adjust for race/ethnicity, often in a biased fashion)."

Chowning called the work “extremely meaningful.”

“If there’s a biological reason we have these differences, we’re off the hook of doing the hard work of restructuring the society to be more equitable,” she said. “The ideas about hierarchy all have the idea of biological difference at their root. We’re helping science teachers and students understand that fallacies about the biological basis of race are at the root of white supremacy.”

Two high school science teachers sitting at a worktable mid science workshop
Former Hutch scientist and current high school chemistry, physics and biotechnology teacher Dr. Danielle Vermaak (leff) at a recent workshop. "It's a complicated subject, but kids want to know,” she said of SEP's new "Race, Racism and Genetics" unit. Photo courtesy of Caren Brinkema

From crime labs to COVID-19 inequities

And it’s not the only challenging curriculum offered by the Hutch’s science education team.

In addition to lessons that draw on the Hutch’s own cancer research breakthroughs, SEP’s units also teach how DNA is being used to exonerate innocent people who’ve been wrongfully sent to jail; how the ivory trade continues to endanger elephants in Africa; and how the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected particular racial and ethnic groups. Currently in development is a unit on health inequities in cancer care, funded by the NIH.

All while teaching assays, PCR tests, pipetting and other basics of a scientific wet lab.

In the “Elephant Conservation: Ivory Cache” unit, students use gel electrophoresis to determine the source of a mock illegal ivory cache. The “DNA Exonerations” unit includes a kit that teaches kids how to micropipette, perform gel electrophoresis and use small repeated bits of DNA called short tandem repeats, or STRs, a staple of forensic identification.

But the science comes with important social context: The students learn about poaching and endangered species and how biomolecular research tools can help conserve valuable keystone species like the African elephant. They learn about mass incarceration and the inequities present in our criminal justice system; they’re taught DNA technology can be used to free the innocent as well as correctly identify perpetrators. The curricula contain lessons on bioethics, public health policy, viruses and vaccines, too. 

Osuga said the whole idea is to talk about science in the real world.

“It’s not in a vacuum,” she said. “It exists in this messy place where humans live.”

Creating ‘agents of change,’ nationwide

The response has been overwhelmingly positive, SEP faculty said.

Putting lessons online means they can — and have — been able to reach teachers not just in Washington state but all across the country. One teacher in Massachusetts who found SEP’s Race, Racism and Genetics unit was so appreciative he wrote a letter of thanks, calling the unit both “useful and timely.”

Vermaak, who worked in a Hutch lab before deciding to teach high school science, said students love the lessons, as does she.

“The lessons are strong and the science is good and the activities are very compelling and thoughtful," she said. "What I absolutely love about SEP and the team is they don’t just have the science right; they also understand the importance of discourse and sensemaking in a classroom and the importance of pacing. I love this curriculum.”

Is it too political? Vermaak dismisses the notion. “It’s not political to teach facts about what is going on,” she said.

Of the eight online lessons, SEP faculty said their new Race, Racism and Genetics unit is the one that resonates most with students. Even so, Osuga said the lessons can be difficult and even emotional at times.

“There’s a lot of big emotions around this issue, which is why for many of our lessons, we like to end with an action piece so students can see themselves as agents of change,” she said. “That’s helped them process these big problems and use those emotions to enact change and that’s empowering.”

Not surprisingly in the current political climate, there has also been a small amount of pushback from parents, but SEP faculty said the various school administrations had been very supportive of the teachers and the curriculum.

“Some parents were like ‘You’re trying to make the white kids feel guilty! Why are you trying to do this?’” said Chowning. “We’re not saying you can’t celebrate certain parts of your culture or ancestry. You should be able to do that and at the same time denounce white supremacy and structural racism. Racism impacts us all and harms society through the waste of human potential.”

Chowning also stressed the curriculum is very much a work in progress — and hardly a cure for racism.

“We’re very clear that curriculum is not a magic bullet — you’re not going to automatically have equity in the classroom when you teach this — but we’re hoping it’s one way to break some of this apart,” she said. “Knowing race was purposefully invented means students and society as a whole can work towards changing ideas underlying inequities and their root causes.”

Diane Mapes is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She has written extensively about health issues for NBC News, TODAY, CNN, MSN, Seattle Magazine and other publications. A breast cancer survivor, she blogs at doublewhammied.com and tweets @double_whammied. Email her at dmapes@fredhutch.org. Just diagnosed and need information and resources? Check out our patient treatment and support page

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Last Modified, September 21, 2021