Thursday, July 05, 2012

Should we really give Mendel the boot?

My Perspectives article about reforming genetics education is up at PLoS Biology (Why do we have to learn this stuff? A new genetics for 21st century students).  There's lots of chatter on Twitter, but I gather that nobody likes using the commenting system on the PLoS Biology site.

I really want to get feedback on the article, so I'm hoping people will post their reactions and ideas here.

To get things started, I'll reiterate my main point:
The first goal of a modern basic genetics course should be to provide students with an understanding of genetic principles and processes that will be useful in their non-academic lives. 
If we agree on this, then we can discuss how best to accomplish this goal (what will be useful and how should it be taught).  If not, let's discuss what the main goal should be.


bjcochrane said...

Great subject for discussion. I posted a few comments on my own nascent blog (, but briefly, (a) based on experience the historical approach doesn't work, (b) the proposed approach, while novel, is comprehensive and rigorous, and (c) it is not "giving Mendel the boot" - rather it is focusing on what was really revolutionary about our favorite monk's work - the concept of the particulate gene, the relationship between genotype and phenotype, and the importance of heritable variation

Alex Samaras said...

I'd been looking forward to this article since you first announced that it had been accepted for publication, and I was very glad to read it. This line from the second to last paragraph really caught my eye:

"the brief time high school and first-year university students devote to genetics shouldn’t be wasted on Mendel’s laws and Punnett squares."

Hear hear!

As a high school biology teacher (in Thailand), I'm happy to say that I'm already doing this and focusing more on the actual molecular mechanisms of genetics as well as what modern genetics research and technology is all about. I may be fortunate, however, in that with the way the curriculum is here in Thailand, I have much more time which I can spend on this: Science/Math program students take 3 years of HS biology, so I spend the whole second semester during their first year covering genetics. Out of that semester, Mendel and classical genetics gets maybe a week or two (total 4-8 in-class hours), and we look at Mendel's work mainly as an example of scientific reasoning. The rest focuses on molecular mechanisms of genetics (replication, expression, regulation, mutation) and how genotype becomes phenotype, and then modern studies and applications (from genomics to genetic engineering).

We probably cover it in greater detail than most high schools elsewhere do, but obviously in much less detail than University classes would. It is challenging, but I find that when pushed to it, high school students can easily rise to the challenge. :)

On reading your paper, there is something about how I've been teaching which doesn't already match what you suggest, and this is definitely something I'll consider: I teach genetics with the goal of getting students to understand biology better (and we continue to apply the concepts learned in the following two years), rather than with the goal of giving them something that they will necessarily find useful in their general lives (apart from the general ideas of scientific thinking that I try to impart). I will definitely look into more ways of incorporating information that will be useful for them, even if they never study Biology again in university and beyond.

Anyway, I enjoyed the paper, and I can't help but feel a little warm and fuzzy when a Real Biologist™ suggests ideas for teaching things so closely related to her specialty and I find that I am already incorporating several of those ideas in my teaching. :)

Rosie Redfield said...

There's some more valuable comments here:

bjcochrane said...

Relevant to this, I just ran across a blog piece from Josh Rosenau about the impact of metagenomics on Microbiology - see The parallels are striking.

Tim Smith said...

This is a really exciting idea.

Allen Downey, a professor at Olin College (my alma mater), has successfully published some free-as-in-speech computer science textbooks with collaborators under his Green Tea Press "imprint":

I wonder if his work might be an interesting model. A proper genetics textbook is probably a much bigger challenge.

Marnie Gelbart said...

Thanks for stimulating valuable discussion on this topic! It is essential that we prepare students for the increasing infusion of genetic information into our daily lives by emphasizing key concepts and discussing the personal and societal implications. At the Personal Genetics Education Project, we develop curriculum promoting awareness about recent developments in genetics and stimulating conversation about the choices we are likely to face as individuals and as a society.

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