International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology

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THURSDAY, JULY 9  /  15:30 - 17:00  /  DS-R510
Organized session / standard talks
Experiments in genetics education: Reports from across the disciplines

Gregory Radick (University of Leeds, United Kingdom)

What should the teaching of genetics look like in the 21st century? What principles ought to guide efforts at reform of conventional teaching? Each of the papers in this session will report on innovative classroom experiments aiming, in various ways and from different disciplinary perspectives, to throw light on these questions. Biologist Rosie Redfield will describe the motivations behind her Useful Genetics MOOC. Science-education researcher Brian Donovan will discuss his latest studies into the cognitive effects on children who learn about genetic disease as linked with race. And historian of science Greg Radick will draw some lessons from a recent project to devise and teach a basic genetics course organized not around Mendel's pea-hybrid experiments but around the insights of the most penetrating critic of early Mendelism, the Oxford biologist W. F. R. Weldon (1860-1906).

The Useful Genetics project: Let's stop wasting our students' time

Rosie Redfield (University of British Columbia, Canada)

Genetics is everywhere in our lives now, but the standard introductory genetics course is a waste of our students’ brains and efforts. We ask them to memorize the genetics of Mendel and Morgan, of fruit flies and mice, when they need to understand personal genomics and DNA fingerprinting, GMOs and cancer genes. We teach them to run gels and analyze crosses when they need to evaluate services such as 23andMe,, and the Who’s Your Daddy mobile DNA-testing truck. Useful Genetics is the first modern genetics course designed to serve the students’ needs rather than the instructor’s preconceptions. It’s taught both as a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on the Coursera platform and as a for-credit replacement for a conventional university genetics course. In this talk I’ll discuss both the motivations behind these changes and the challenges and rewards of delivering them to both global and university audiences.

The educational debt of school biology? Evidence that students intentions to fix the racial achievement gap are affected by subtle racial framings of monogenic diseases

Brian Donovan (Stanford University, United States)

Recent experimental research by Donovan (2014) suggests that indirect references to race in the biology textbook curriculum can influence how some adolescents conceptualize race in the United States (US). In the present study, the findings of Donovan (2014) are replicated and extended through a randomized double- blind field experiment that investigates the impact of subtle racial framings of human genetic diseases on ninth graders’ intentions to redress the racial achievement gap. The mixed-method study was carried out in a public high school in the California Bay Area. Students recruited for the study (N = 86) read either a racially framed or a non-racially framed textbook passage on human genetic diseases. After a short distracting task they completed two different racial essentialism scales. Then they read a New York Times article describing a test score gap between races in New York City. Following this reading students responded to an instrument that assessed their explanations for the racial achievement gap and their intention to volunteer their free time to fix it. The quantitative results demonstrated that students in the racially framed condition exhibited greater agreement with the genetic basis of racial difference than students in the non-racially framed condition after reading. Furthermore, students in the racially framed condition were more unwilling to volunteer their time to fix the racial achievement gap than students in the non-racially framed condition if they believed races were biological kinds. The qualitative results demonstrated that more students in the racially framed condition gave genetically deterministic explanations of the achievement gap than students in the non-racially framed condition. These findings open up new interdisciplinary research questions for science education and science communication in light of the fact that US science journalists tend to use racial frames to explain medical genetics research.

The Weldonian alternative: Steps towards a de-Mendelized, developmentalist curriculum in genetics (and towards students less prone to genetic determinism)

Gregory Radick (University of Leeds, United Kingdom)

Between 2012 and 2014, the Genetics Pedagogies Project at the University of Leeds set out to develop, deliver and assess an experimental, "de-Mendelized" curriculum in genetics, taking inspiration from the work of the Oxford biologist W.F.R. Weldon (1860-1906). Weldon is well remembered as a critic of early Mendelism. What is less well remembered is that behind his objections lay a vivid sense of the environmental conditioning of hereditary effects, and of the variability and complexity that come from such interactions. As biology after the "century of the gene" has come increasingly to recognize interactions of this kind as primary, the case for retaining the traditional Mendelian starting point in genetics teaching has grown ever less persuasive. In this talk I'll report on the attempt at Leeds to devise an alternative that, in taking Weldon's perspective seriously, aimed at producing students not just better informed about twenty-first biology but, in keeping with that biology, less prone to genetic determinism than they were when they started.