Most introductory genetics courses follow a similar structure: base it on Mendel. Students are introduced to the experiments of the Austrian monk and using these as foundation, are taught transmission genetics. Trait inheritance, dominant and recessive alleles, chromosomes, and so on. But, this may lead students to simply learn the ‘rules of inheritance’, rather than really understand what’s going on.
A new Perspective article in PLoS Biology describes how the committee responsible for the course at the author’s institution decided to update the curriculum. The basic idea was to turn it around. Start with the molecular mechanisms underlying genetic processes and then move on to genetic analyses.
However, this, so the author, Professor Rosemary Redfield, asserts, still didn’t address the root of the issues. The new syllabus still focused on understanding transmission genetics. But is this really what (or all) the students need to take away form an undergraduate genetics course?
The progress in, and increasing social presence of, genetic research, might/should lead to other focal points.
- Thanks to better technologies and the accompanying decrease in cost, personal genomics has become a real possibility with various companies offering genetic tests directly to consumers. This brings with it a host of ethical and social questions, which require the input of geneticists. Understanding the science and social/ethical issues thus should become a relevant part of any introduction to genetics.
- Further, more and more research focuses on the real world out there, rather than the conditions maintainable in the laboratory. Full genome sequencing makes it possible to assess and investigate natural genetic variation in populations (the human population being one of the most studied), which contributes to a shift from individuals to populations.
- Also, the ability to look directly at DNA sequences thoroughly interweaves genetics and evolution, rendering them virtually inseparable. As such, they should be taught in an integrative manner.
These points, so the article states, should all be considered when designing a syllabus for 21st century genetics. (Poor Mendel? But then again, maybe he would have agreed?)
Some will object, and textbooks reflecting this new approach are still hard to find, but perhaps it’s time to change this.
It is true that, certainly in a rapidly progressing field such as genetics, curricula should not/can not be static and immutable. Students should be exposed to what is happening in the field and in the research labs. This, however, places an important responsibility on the teacher’s shoulders, namely to keep their course up-to-date. But perhaps it’s worth it?
(For some tweeted responses, check this PLoS Biologue post.)
Redfield, R.J. (2012). “Why Do We Have To Learn This Stuff” – A New Genetics For 21st Century Students PLoS Biology DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001356