Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Preparing for a meeting with our usual textbook rep

The Genetics planning committee (or whatever we are) is about to meet with a textbook rep to discuss options for getting a textbook that fits the kind of course we want to teach.

I'll set aside for now the issue of whether we want a textbook at all. I think we need a set of required readings (and maybe activities) that we expect students to complete BEFORE they come to class. These could be chapters of a standard textbook, a collection of chapters from different textbooks that a publisher has put together for us, stuff we wrote ourselves, or ???

Why a typical genetics textbook isn't suitable:

Our approach to teaching genetics seems very sensible to us, but it's certainly not the one most courses take. Genetics courses and textbooks usually start either with some combination of Mendel's discoveries, meiosis and DNA/gene expression, introducing the basics of what's called 'transmission genetics'. They may do Mendel first, or DNA first. Students learn to predict phenotypes of offspring from phenotypes of parents, and vice versa. To do this they need to have memorized 'Mendel's laws'. In this context our current understanding of molecular biology and meiosis is presented as explaining what Mendel found.

We instead want to separately teach the two components of transmission genetics. We will thoroughly teach how DNA sequences determine phenotype, building a solid molecular foundation for such concepts as ploidy and dominance. Separately we'll teach how DNA sequences are inherited (meiosis, gamete fusion, chromosome reassortment and crossing over, etc.). Only once both components have been solidly established will we combine them to teach about the inheritance of phenotypes.

But we can't find a textbook that does a proper job of teaching how genotype determines phenotype. This deserves at least one full chapter, maybe more, but textbooks usually gloss over it, assuming that students who understand how DNA makes RNA makes proteins and what proteins do will automatically grasp the implications for phenotypes, especially in diploids.

So maybe the solution is to use a standard textbook but somehow create this anomalous chapter ourselves, or find it somewhere outside of the usual textbooks.

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