To help students see that genetics is relevant to their lives, Dr. Sarah Berke asks them to explore how much control they have advocating over their DNA.
Assistant Professor of Biology, Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri
PhD in Neuroscience, BA in Biology and Psychology
Genetics is an evolving field. In recent years, the branch of biology that focuses on genes, heredity, and genetic variability has undergone massive growth and transformation—all puns aside. This is in large part thanks to the advent of companies such as 23andMe (which provides ancestry and wellness reports based on a DNA sample), CRISPR technology (which has made it easier to edit and alter DNA), and even the growing DNA database of the FBI (which is being used to solve cold cases as well as new ones).
As fascinating as those advances are, they do not necessarily make genetics easier to teach. “I have two main challenges,” says Sarah Berke, PhD, assistant professor of biology at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri. “First, genetics is hard. In fact, it’s probably one of the hardest aspects for beginning biology students to grasp. Second, students in general just aren’t as engaged if the topic you’re teaching isn’t relevant to them.”
But Dr. Berke knows that genetics is likely to become deeply relevant to her students in ways beyond science class, including ones as yet unknown. “They need to understand the important issues in science that they will eventually have to vote on,” she says. “Students [coming into class] didn’t have enough background to make those decisions.”
Lucky for them, Berke has created a project that combines science with civics and gets students thinking about topics that are hotly debated—and likely will be throughout their lives.
Students do not view genetics as relevant
Genetics is a challenging subject, and students—especially nonmajor Intro to Biology students—do not always see how it is relevant to their lives. At the same time, some of the genetics issues currently being brought to the fore will impact students beyond the classroom, as they may ultimately be asked to vote on important issues related to the science and its far-reaching impacts, as well as make healthcare decisions directly impacted by genetics.
Have students create a Genetic Bill of Rights
It was during a Constitution Day celebration at Truman State University that Berke was struck with an idea: to have students write a Genetic Bill of Rights. This, she explains, is a document that outlines what the students feel are “inalienable human rights” when it comes to their genetic information, how it is used, and how they are judged as a result. The documents are turned into posters that are shared with—and signed by—the broader campus community.
“Studies have shown that students need to learn how to become civically engaged in their collegiate years in order to develop into actively engaged citizens later in life. The topic of genetics provides me with many opportunities to discuss civic issues with my students and to teach them how to advocate for their position.”— Sarah Berke, PhD
Course: BIOL 100 Biology with Lab
Course description: General theme is similarities in living systems as viewed at various levels—the genetic code, energy production, homeostasis, and adaptations for survival. The scientific method as a mode of inquiry is presented and used in laboratory investigations.
See resources shared by Sarah Berke, PhDSee materials
Berke’s “Genetic Bill of Rights” poster project
Before diving into genetics and the Bill of Rights project later in the semester, Berke makes sure she has covered the fundamentals of genes, mutations, cell division, and genome editing. When she knows that students have these fundamentals under their belts, she is able to change tack a bit and introduce this project. Here, she shares how she sets the stage—and how students share the final results with the broader campus community.
Use a look back as a way to look ahead
Berke begins the project by providing students with a window into the history of ethical issues that have swirled around genetics since the early 1900s. Specifically, she investigates the history of eugenics—the movement aimed at “improving” the human species through “selective breeding.”
To do this, Berke shows the students a short video titled War on the Weak: Eugenics in America. After showing the film, she sets up six stations around the room with artifacts from the Harry H. Laughlin Collection at Truman University. In particular, Berke has students examine artifacts related to sterilization, immigration, the trait book and trait analysis card, crime, artistic traits, and state regulations. While students rotate around the stations, she answers questions about each artifact, which takes about 60–90 minutes. Most of the students are shocked that this movement happened in the United States—and before Nazi Germany.
Consider current dilemmas in a personal context
With the eye-opening eugenics discussion fresh in their minds, Berke asks students to individually consider their rights and responsibilities in regard to their own genetic code. This includes dilemmas such as the sale of genetic information by DNA-testing companies, the FBI’s use of DNA in crime solving and convictions, and the use of individuals’ genetic information by insurance companies to determine risk and rates.
Examples of Posters from Berke’s Project
Below are two examples of a Genetic Bill of Rights created in recent classes:
“I give students a worksheet with some topics to help them consider their opinions,” Berke says. “They have about 10 minutes to think on their own before the class breaks into groups to discuss together. This reflection time increases participation by all group members.”
Clarify the purpose of the poster project
Berke divides her class into six teams (four students in each) to kick off the creation of the Genetic Bill of Rights posters. As an introduction to the project, she reminds students that The Bill of Rights includes the first 10 amendments to the US Constitution. They were created to protect individual liberties and to limit government power. She tells them that their task is to create a Genetics Bill of Rights to protect individual genetic liberty and privacy.
Offer specific topics, but allow some leeway
While it takes time for teams to agree on a final list what to include, Berke says the process typically takes about 90 minutes. Students are required in their Genetic Bill of Rights to address the following situations, but they may include others if they wish:
- Family rights and privacy
- Criminal investigation
- Genetic testing
- Genetic medicine
- Genetic privacy
She also allows variation in format: Students can use Google Slides or pens and poster board, as both allow students to work as a team.
Add a civic engagement component on campus
At the end of the lesson, the posters go on display at a “Celebration of Generic Diversity” event. “My class invites the Truman State University student body to this event,” says Berke. All of her students are in attendance to answer questions and invite visitors to sign one of the posters. To encourage their attendance, she schedules it during the class’s usual lab period.
To drive awareness of the event, Berke publicizes it in as many student-facing outlets as possible: on the university calendar, on the online system called Banner, through the school’s weekly email alert for events, and on the TV screens positioned throughout the science building. She also emails the science and mathematics faculty, and she encourages her students to tell their friends.
Inspire students to petition for change
The final part the project involves off-campus outreach. She asks the class, “After you’ve shared your opinions about the Genetic Bill of Rights, what are you going to do about it?”
To give them a starting point, Berke requires that each student compose a letter to their Congressional representative or senator based on what they learned.
“I tell them to discuss a concern they have regarding genetic privacy, rights, or information,” she says. “I share with them the Society for Neuroscience website, which does a wonderful job describing how to write a letter to a legislator.”
While Berke does not teach about advocacy and does not require that students send the letters (though they can if they choose), she does read the missives and provides feedback for improvement. She says that although she does not track the results, a few students have told her that they sent their letters to petition for change. (Top student concerns include blocking workplace or insurance discrimination based on genetics, reglations on state DNA databases, and debates about genome editing.)
“This is one of my favorite activities to incorporate into my classes,” Berke says. “It really challenges the students to take the content knowledge they have learned and think critically about it. Many students have told me this was their favorite activity of the semester. Additionally, since adding the Genetics Bill of Rights activity, I have seen an increase in my student exam scores in genetics.”