Towards a More Humane Genetics Education

Honoring the Complexity of Genetics

How does teaching students about the complexity of genetics influence their beliefs about the importance of genes in determining complex human traits? 

Project Purpose:

Most students are learning an oversimplified model of genetics (genes determine traits) in biology class. Unfortunately, this model does not adequately represent the relationship between genes and more complex human traits. And it can cause students to develop a belief in genetic determinism – the inaccurate idea that all human traits and behaviors, such as intelligence and educational attainment, are determined by genes. 

If an individual believes that their intelligence and academic ability are determined by genes, they may also believe that their academic ability is fixed and therefore not worthy of pursuing. As a result, students may incorrectly believe that they are “not a STEM person” because STEM is not in their genes. These kinds of inaccurate beliefs can have real consequences, which can contribute to the development of racist and sexist beliefs, as well as disparities in STEM degree attainment. 

This project explores how teaching undergraduates about complex and accurate genetics concepts influences their beliefs about the importance of genes in determining complex human traits.

Our Work

Through our growing line of research, we have preliminary evidence showing that belief in genetic determinism can increase or decrease depending on how genetics concepts are presented in the classroom. For example, a pilot study we implemented suggests that it is possible to reduce belief in genetic determinism among undergraduates by teaching them complex genetics concepts, such as multifactorial causes (genes, the environment, and unknown factors) for human traits. 

However, we still do not know which multifactorial concepts are the most effective at reducing student belief in genetic determinism. Nor do we know to what extent these multifactorial concepts affect student belief in genetic determinism.

We are ready to explore these questions. To do so, we have developed four curricular interventions using various genetics concepts to explain differences in athletic ability. 

  • Mendelian: how variations in a single gene impact athletic ability
  • Polygenic: how variations in multiple genes interact to impact athletic ability
  • Multifactorial: how variations in multiple genes interact to impact athletic ability
  • Interactions between genes and environment: how different genotypes impact athletic ability in different environmental conditions 

What’s Next

We will implement these curricular interventions in undergraduate biology and genetics classrooms during the fall 2022 semester to determine how these interventions affect student belief in genetic determinism.

About the Grant

Title: Honoring the Complexity of Genetics– Exploring how undergraduate learning of multifactorial genetics affects belief in genetic determinism

Partners: Dr. Michelle Smith, Cornell University; Dr. Greg Radick, University of Leeds

This work is supported by the National Science Foundation under Award No. 1914843.