By Ann Zeeh

Every spring, I teach genetics to undergraduate students, many of whom will be the healthcare professionals and science researchers of the future. Many of these students will also experience in their lives some sort of event where they will be asked to consider their own genetic background or that of a family member. Having taught genetics for 24 years, I have seen many new ideas and a great deal of new information emerge to revolutionize our understanding of how genes work to govern all the processes going on in living things. Post-Human Genome Project researchers over the past 10 to 15 years, in particular, have generated an impressive amount of information connecting human gene function to health and disease, with new information emerging daily, spawning a new sub-field of genetics, designated personal genetics. Such health information must not remain in textbooks and journals but must make it to the application stage, for all the hours and dollars spent to be worth the effort. While certainly today's healthcare workers must be trained in the applications of personal genetics now available, the upcoming generations of doctors and researchers will have the greatest stake in bringing personal genetics to fruition for the general public.1 The students sitting in our science classrooms must hear about personal genetics, and the earlier the better. Such education may allow this branch of modern medicine to become a natural extension of our healthcare practice, just another component of preventative medicine, in line with vaccines and yearly check-ups.

With a popular celebrity like Angelina Jolie recently announcing her decision to undergo a preventative double mastectomy following a genetic evaluation of her BRCA1 and 2 gene status, and the Supreme Court of the United States considering the legality of gene patenting, the phrase "genetic testing" has become commonplace in the news. Our children read about genetic testing for disease and in forensics as early as in their middle school science books. Doctors may advise patients and their family members about the possibility of genetic testing for disease diagnosis or prediction. Television shows depict genetic testing scenarios ranging from paternity cases to complex crime scene investigations. But the reality is, although the technology is equivalent to a pop culture phenomenon, our students (and their families) are not prepared for the incorporation of DNA technologies into their own everyday lives. We must ask, when is the best time for strong lessons in genetics and 21st century genetic technology to be incorporated into science curricula?

Training today's youth in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics is a national priority, with the hopes of inspiring innovation and creativity in our future leaders. With the support of 26 states, a completed Next Generation Science Standards document was released earlier this year, detailing a 21st century framework of demanding, but well-tested, educational standards for K-12 students covering all major areas of science.2 For high school students, these standards recommend the teaching of the structure and function of DNA and the inheritance and variation of genes in individuals or families, as well as processes that lead to evolutionary events. While middle school students are taught the basic concepts of familial inheritance in classical transmission genetics discussions (think Mendelian genetics and questions like, "Can you roll your tongue?"), it is not until high school that students have the beginnings of the intellectual maturity needed to grasp the more challenging, not so easy to see, concepts of molecular genetics and the significance and power of DNA.

Enter the idea of incorporating personal genetics into a high school biology curriculum. In a recent conversation with one high school teacher of both Biology and Advanced Placement Biology, the teacher indicated that all levels of students are very interested in the material presented in the genetics unit. Quoting her: "In AP Biology, the genetics unit may be their favorite unit." The problem lies in the large number of overall topics that must be covered in a year-long biology course. It is rare to be able to spend much time beyond the basics of each topic, for example, in consideration of the implications of the genetics in everyday life. This is extremely unfortunate. As our high school students explore the complexities of how the genetic material of an organism works to define that organism and acts as a dynamic entity to define the future of populations, seldom do they consider their very own DNA as a real diagnostic tool and predictor of their own futures. When asked to comment, one middle school principal and former science and technology department supervisor told me, "If students were able to think more about personal, practical applications of science topics, such as genetics, instead of considering science as an abstract, theoretical entity, science may become more interesting to them. Making science personal could be just the hook we need to engage more students in the study of science." A discussion of personal genetics is one place to start.

To ensure successful conversations with our current and future generations of students in personal genetics, or any area of applied science, we must be innovative in how we choose to accomplish the teaching of modern science and there are obstacles to be circumvented. First, teachers must be prepared to teach the very latest in genetic technology. Teachers must have access to professional development opportunities on a regular basis to keep them up-to-date on current science research applications and technologies. In the area of genetics, information changes quickly and professional development programs must be able to both keep up and address the needs of a wide teacher audience - young teachers just out of science education programs to more established teachers who may have last formally studied science 20 or 30 years ago. Furthermore, we should truly engage our young people, answering for them the question: "Why do I need to know this stuff?" One solution may be to routinely prioritize time for a discussion of not just the science of genetics but the social, ethical, and even legal issues that accompany applications of a modern science such as personal genetics. Engaging young people in critical and analytical thought processes early in their adult lives is essential to their future success in college and beyond.

As with most worthwhile endeavors, re-vamping early genetics instruction to make it more personal will take considerable effort. Teachers must be afforded time and resources to keep up-to-date with technologies and time in the classroom to intersperse ethical discussions and debates into an already packed science curriculum. Students require time on their own to just think about the real implications of what they are learning. Some high schools are making progress in the right direction with the development of discussion-based bioethics courses.  Science research programs are also helpful, where interested high school students are matched with practicing researchers who act as hosts and mentors to the students as they complete independent projects during the school year or in the summer. Unfortunately, because of limited availability, neither bioethics courses nor science research programs are accessible to all students. If we could also work to increase professional development offerings for our teachers and encourage self-reflection in our students, we would be offering a better overall genetics education to more of our young citizens, training them to make good personal choices for themselves and their families well into the 21st century.

Ann Zeeh, PhD, is Associate Professor of Biology at The College of Saint Rose and Chair of the Department of Physical and Biological Sciences.

Acknowledgements - Many thanks to my science education colleagues, Linda Maier of the Emma Willard School in Troy, New York and Michael Klugman of Bethlehem Central Middle School in Delmar, New York for interesting discussions of the state of genetics education in our high schools today.  


1. Wiener, C.M., Thomas, P.A., Goodspeed, E., Valle, D., and Nichols, D.G. (2010). "Genes to Society" - The Logic and Process of the New Curriculum for the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Acad. Med. 85(3): 498-506. d.o.i. 10.1097/ACM.0b013e3181ccbebf.

2. Next Generation Science Standards. (2013). Retrieved on June 1, 2013 from

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