Penn State, Harvard team up to enhance science education for minority students

November 10, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — "Finding Your Roots," an innovative new curriculum that utilizes personalized genealogy and genetics to teach science and health to disadvantaged and minority students, based on Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s acclaimed PBS documentary series of the same name, received two major external grants: a $355,000 funding grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for “Genetics and Genealogy Summer Camps for Middle School-Aged Youth” and a $304,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for a companion program at the college level, “Personalized Genetics and Genealogy Exercises to Enhance Introductory Biology Courses." Leading the curriculum working group are Gates, the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, and Nina Jablonski, the Evan Pugh Professor of Anthropology at Penn State.

The development of the "Finding Your Roots" curriculum is in response to the ever-growing U.S. need to maintain a competitive workforce, to remain a global leader, and increase diversity amongst this workforce. As the number of jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is predicted to grow rapidly to maintain this competitive edge, African-American and Hispanic professionals make up only between 12 and 16 percent of the STEM workforce, with a declining percentage of underrepresented students pursuing STEM degrees, according to U.S. News & World Report’s February 2015 investigation. This new educational program led by Penn State and Harvard University researchers aims to change that trend by engaging more minority and disadvantaged middle-school youth through a unique approach blending personal genealogy and genetics.

"I conceived of this project after the first season of our PBS series aired in 2005, as I realized the impact that tracing one's genealogy can have on the self-esteem of young people of color,” Gates explained. “As every amateur genealogist knows, reconstructing one's ancestry is just another way of learning about yourself. Far too many of our children have had their passion for learning crushed in poor learning environments, both at home and in our schools. Learning the art and science of ancestry tracing through DNA and archival records can help to regenerate that passion for learning, because it is so personal, and besides, it is fun."

“People are interested in themselves. They want to know where they came from, and why they look the way they do,” Jablonski said. “Using the tools of modern genomics and genealogical reconstruction, we can reconstruct some of this precious history, and help students answer the question, ‘Who Am I?’ Our hope is that this experience will ignite a spark of interest in science that will burn throughout their lives.”

Through the program, the students will be introduced to key concepts in biology and evolution, human variation and health through hands-on measurement and quantitative analysis and the visual display of their personal information. Campers will themselves be the scientists exploring their own genomes and heritage. Through videos and direct video links, campers will be exposed to scientists working in STEM fields who will serve as role models to campers.

Another long-term goal of the project is to make the entire curriculum — detailed lesson plans, links to content videos and digital templates — free and available to teachers and educational administrators through a special website. Schools and communities can set up their own "Finding Your Roots" summer camps and after-school programs to benefit thousands of students from all backgrounds.

Gates is an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker, literary scholar and public educator, who is an internationally recognized authority on the African-American experience. He is the creator, host and producer of several popular PBS documentary series, including "Finding Your Roots." Jablonski is a leading biological anthropologist who conducts research on the evolution of human physical diversity and a public educator devoted to improving the understanding of human evolution and diversity. She is co-director of the African American Genealogy and Genetics Curriculum Project, along with Gates and Professor Mark Shriver of Penn State, with funding from the National Science Foundation.

Other members of the "Finding Your Roots" team include Monique Scott, an educational consultant specializing in public education about human diversity and race; Lynn Fellman, a multimedia artist and designer of science visualizations; Theresa Wilson, project coordinator and senior research technician at Penn State; and Michael Zeman, curriculum coordinator and director of Penn State’s widely acclaimed Science-U summer camps. 

Penn State partners include Eric Plutzer, professor of political science and director of the Survey Research Center; Shriver, professor of anthropology and genetics and coordinator of the project’s genomic data and genetic content; Heather Zimmerman and Susan Land, professors of education; Chris Stubbs, director of the Educational Gaming Commons; and Sam Richards, senior lecturer in sociology and director of the World in Conversation Center. From outside of Penn State, key partners are Aditi Pai, associate professor of biology, Spelman College; Wallace Sharif, assistant professor of biology, Morehouse College; Joseph Graves, professor and associate dean for research, School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering at North Carolina A&T State University and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro; Misha Angrist, associate professor of biology, Duke University; Jennifer Wagner, American Association for the Advance of Science Congressional Science Fellow; Catherine Bliss, assistant professor of sociology, University of California at San Francisco; and Jose Fernandez, professor and vice chair for education in the Department of Nutrition Sciences, University of Alabama. The other site directors are Bert Ely from the Department of Biology at the University of South Carolina and Preeti Gupta, director of youth learning and research at the American Museum of Natural History.

  • Nina Jablonski

    Nina Jablonski, Evan Pugh Professor of Anthropology at Penn State

    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated November 10, 2015