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Essay Contest Reveals Misconceptions of High School Students in Genetics Content

The American Society of Human Genetics announced a press release out today about a study of student essays submitted as entries in the National DNA Day Essay Contest in 2006 and 2007. The ASHG’s education staff examined 500 of the 2,443 essays and found that 55.6% of the essays contained at least one “obvious” misconception, and 20.2% contained two or more misconceptions.

At first glance I was a little concerned about mining these essays – notably submitted by eager students to win a contest – for this type of information, but then I concluded that the authors of the essays must have assumed that they were being evaluated based on the accuracy of their statements. Additionally, the ASHG took careful steps to preserve anonymity.

The panel concluded that “misconceptions about genetics remain prevalent in U.S. science classrooms”, and included information about using the findings to improve genetics education. I highly recommend reading the entire paper, available for free from the ASHG and Genetics: “Essay Contest Reveals Misconceptions of High School Students in Genetics Content.” From the press release:

“The misconception most frequently identified in the researchers’ analysis of student essays was broadly defined into the category of “genetic technologies” (17.2%), these responses displayed incomplete understanding of the complexity of scientific research, including biotechnology and genetic engineering. Another common theme identified in the analysis revealed that students did not fully understand concepts related to heredity and patterns of inheritance (14%); these essays reflected students’ belief that single genes are the cause of traits and inherited diseases. In actuality, even in cases of simple inheritance, multiple genetic and/or environmental factors often play a role in the expression of a trait or disease.”

The paper includes some interesting examples of misconceptions, such as the following quote from a student’s essay:

‘‘One study showed that chemical dependency skips a generation. This would make the gene for chemical dependency recessive. This means that if a psychiatric geneticist would make a Punnett square for two parents whose parents had chemical dependency, the Punnett square would say that 3 out of 4 of their children would be chemically dependant.’’

The authors of the study respond with: “Chemical dependency is a complex trait that cannot be explained by a simple, monohybrid Punnett square cross.”

Everyone remembers the “big B” “little b” Mendelian crosses of things like eye color in biology class. But in today’s world of genetics, teaching this simplistic view of genetics, especially in high school (which is really just a basic introduction to genetics) might be too confusing. What do you think?

Blaine Bettinger

Intellectual property attorney, genealogist, and author of The Genetic Genealogist since 2007

9 Comments

  1. Blaine,
    This is precisely what I have been saying. only 1/3-1/2 of the US is health literate….far less are genomically literate. How can we expect these students to interpret genetic testing? Even college students carry these misconceptions.
    Assuming everyone goes to college and takes biology courses…..we still have a low literacy rate!!! So how can we have them receive DTC test results?
    -Steve
    http://www.thegenesherpa.blogspot.com

    Steven Murphy MD’s last blog post..Genetic Over-regulation? Simple Answer.

  2. Steve – I think you raise excellent and valid points, as always. I’m not sure what the right answer is. My suggestion is always “education, education, education.”

    Since these tests are already available, what can we do to prevent misunderstanding? I think we’re both helping through our own means, including your efforts at Helix Health and my work here at TGG.

  3. I think the disturbing take-home message of the article is that high school students (and their teachers who submit the “top” essays!!!) are full of gross misperceptions.

    For example, take the camel example cited. Of course, there is no “water conservation” gene. Rather, it’s a large set of adaptations that allow camels to go long periods of time without water consumption. Large nostrils to trap/recycle exhaled water vapor, modified red blood cells that can flow under conditions of dehydration, ability to withstand very high body temperatures without sweating, etc. In short, a human that can go months without drinking water is not a human, but a very different chimera that would unlikely be able to mate with humans, thus rendering it a truly new species. Not to mention the complexities of doing such a thing that would in reality push it beyond what is feasible with current technology.

    The ethical dilemma is another issue entirely.

    Jane@kids lessons’s last blog post..Learn with your kid

  4. I hate to say this, but a great deal of it is due to assumption being taught as fact. A great example of this is the evolution. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/fossil-men-feud-over-our-oldest-ancestor-692327.html
    this article explains what I am talking about. Now that the “Millennium Man” has been found it will “force a radical re-think of the history of human evolution.”

    My point is things need to be proven as fact before being taught as fact. It is a major problem in the school system

  5. The student essays proved that a need to research or to further investigate that specific topic. I would suggest that if you’ve search something, then you re-search it again to further examine if that is really correct.

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