Genealogy Curriculum Sparks Students’ Interest in STEM (and History, Too)

By Brenda Iasevoli — May 11, 2018 3 min read
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A new middle school genetics and genealogy curriculum will be featured in the National Science Foundation’s STEM for All Video Showcase from May 14 to 21. The showcase will share up to 200 online videos spotlighting federally funded projects that aim to transform the teaching of science, technology, engineering, and math.

The genetics and genealogy curriculum was inspired by the PBS series “Finding Your Roots,” where celebrities like former Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter and actress Angela Bassett discover their ancestral histories. Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., the show’s host, and Nina Jablonski, a professor of anthropology at Penn State University, dreamed up the curriculum, inviting historians, artists, biologists, geneticists, anthropologists, genealogists and educators to weigh in. Their goal is to engage students in science using a more personal approach.

“No child will be left behind if we have children trace their family tree,” said Gates in a video about the curriculum. “Why? Because what’s your favorite subject? Your favorite subject is yourself.”

The curriculum provides step-by-step directions for DNA extraction and analysis of test results that students can obtain from for a cost of $79.20. By the end, students will describe who they are “genetically, genealogically, and intentionally.”

Genetic testing services like have become popular among people looking for long-lost relatives or who want to trace their exact lineage. Recently, concerns have come up about privacy and the ethics of using online genealogy websites following news that police detectives used a public ancestry database to track down the Golden State Killer decades after the trail had gone cold. (The genetic service lets users choose to have their DNA sample stored or discarded, but there are some places where that information might remain.)

Test runs of the curriculum were held last summer for children ages 10 to 13 during two-week camps at Penn State, the University of South Carolina, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The kids sought to answer the questions: Who are my ancestors and where do they come from?

“We’re asking curious kids to ask questions about their own origin, about their own place in their family’s genealogy, and their own place in human evolution,” Jablonski said. “Basically, where do they fit in the universe of humanity?”

At the camps, students began by making predictions about their ancestry. Then they explored their genealogy one generation at a time, following a paper trail of their lineage online, in libraries, and through in-person interviews. And when the paper trail ended, genetics carried the investigation into the distant past, even a thousand generations back.

On one day, the students opened the results of their individual DNA tests at the same time (the tests were completed before they arrived at the camp). One boy covered his mouth and let out an “Oh!” A girl who predicted she would be 20 percent European found out that she had 55.7 percent European blood. Another girl exclaimed “Cool!” at the news that she was 0.2 percent Korean.

Jablonski said the kids were so excited to learn about their unique genetic information that they were “glued” to the material.

“The abstractions of American history, the endless names and dates and timelines, all of a sudden they have a face and a texture and the face somehow resembles you,” Gates said in the video about the curriculum. “History becomes a mirror and you can see yourself in it. That’s hard to beat.”

You can watch 13 young people at the genetics and genealogy camp at Penn State discover their ancestry in the web series “Finding Your Roots: Seedlings” here.

Photo: Students in the “Finding Your Roots Genetics & Genealogy Camp” extract and examine their own DNA before seeing their individual DNA ancestry test results. (WPSU Penn State)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.