Curriculum Reform Needed For An Informed Public When It Comes To Genetics, Expert Says

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It’s not enough to teach genetics, says Michael Dougherty, director of education for the American Society for Human Genetics.  It has to be taught in the right way.

“Current teaching practices may be producing a public that is unprepared to participate effectively as medical consumers in a world where personalized medicine will rely increasingly on genetic testing, risk assessment, predispositions, and ranges of treatment options that include biological and behavioral components,” writes Dougherty in an opinion piece published online today in the American Journal of Human Genetics.

Dougherty calls for curriculum reform at all levels, from middle school all the way up through undergraduate education. The key, he says, is for students to understand that the genetics of most human traits and conditions are complex and, with only rare exceptions, not deterministic.

Dougherty suggests a new genetics curriculum that begins with lessons on traits that show continuous variation, such as height and weight, and focuses on how multiple inherited and environmental factors can affect these traits.  Teachers could then move on to discussions of genes and the molecular details of how they are passed from generation to generation.  Only here, in the later stages of their genetics education, would students learn about the rare single gene diseases, such as cystic fibrosis and PKU, that make up the bulk of today’s genetics lessons.

“Our incompleteness of understanding and the messiness of complex-trait examples are poor arguments for maintaining the status quo in our genetics classrooms.  We know on theoretical grounds that the entirety of phenotype is defined by genes and environment, and substantial uncertainty still characterizes both.  To pretend such uncertainty does not exist is to deprive students of an appreciation of both modern genetics and the nature of science.”

Dougherty points to the Genes, Environment and Human Behavior module, funded by the Department of Energy and available from BSCS, as an example of the kind of lesson that could help correct the misconceptions that students already have.  The National Human Genome Research Institute also has available a Human Genetic Variation curriculum supplement.  And of course, you can always check out the Genetics 101 section of the 23andMe website for a basic introduction to genetics.


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