MSU, U-M Partner to Teach Kids About Genomics, Diversity, STEM Careers

Michigan State University and the University of Michigan will partner on a new program to teach middle schoolers in Detroit and Flint about genomics and evolution in the hopes that it will promote diversity and encourage students of color to pursue a career in science.

The five-year program, which is being funded through a $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, will be piloted in Detroit and Flint during the 2015-16 school year. Organizers hope to eventually create related learning materials to offer to middle schools nationally.

“The idea is to create a curriculum that connects genomics, evolution, the environment, and human health,” says Toby Citrin, the director of U-M’s Center for Public Health and Community Genomics. “Not only does it satisfy the newest science standards, but it puts topics that are taught after middle school in separate classes in one framework.”

The program builds on an earlier effort by the universities to introduce genomics and the relationship between genes and environment to high school students. Citrin says the earlier program was a success, but it was clear to administrators that the subject matter needed to be taught to kids sooner than high school.

The new program’s curriculum will blend formal classroom learning and informal community-based instruction, allowing students to apply ideas about natural selection and the way genes interact with their environment to their own lives. For example, Citrin says participants will learn how lactose intolerance or different skin colors developed in people.

“The evolution component is important in understanding genetic diversity,” Citrin says, stressing that one of the program’s goals is to reduce self-stigmatization. “One of the modules we teach relates to skin color. If you really want to understand skin color, you need to know the genetic and environmental components. All humans had dark skin until they moved to climates with less sun, and then their skin got lighter. It’s really important for minority students to learn that it’s us white folks who are the so-called mutants. Lighter skin was a healthier genetic adaptation than trying to maintain dark skin without a lot of sun.”

Citrin cites another genetic example—lactose intolerance—that is more prevalent in the African American community: “The genome for all humans is intolerant to dairy, but some groups adapted when their regular food intake started to include dairy. It’s not a case of defective genes if you’re lactose intolerant.”

Citrin believes that if students can get excited about learning the genetic cause of darker skin or a dairy intolerance, they might be more likely to pursue a career in a science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM)-related field. “A very small proportion of genetic researchers are African American and Latino,” he says.

The program will partner with institutions such as the Charles Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit and the Sloan Museum in Flint, as well as with library systems in each city. Other collaborators include the CREATE for STEM Institute at MSU, U-M’s School of Public Health, and the Concord Consortium, a nonprofit research organization in Massachusetts.

Citrin says in order to engage parents, a number of student-adult activities are also planned. In addition, the students will take field trips to places like genetic labs so they can see scientists in action using techniques they’ve learned about in class.

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