About the Project

How We Got Here

Several years ago, Nina Jablonski and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. were lamenting about the lack of diversity in STEM fields, and the non-personal approach that classrooms take in engaging students in discussions about evolutionary biology and the connectedness between near and far (very far) relatives. After all, we are who we are because of these personal and biological relationships.

Drs. Jablonski and Gates gathered a group of committed historians, artists, biologists, geneticists, anthropologists, genealogists, and educators to imagine a curriculum that would invite students to consider who they are genetically, genealogically/socioculturally, and intentionally.

Team Members

Nina Jablonski headshot

Nina Jablonski

Evan Pugh University Professor of Anthropology
Director of the Center for Human Evolution and Diversity

Nina G. Jablonski is Evan Pugh University Professor of Anthropology at The Pennsylvania State University. A biological anthropologist and paleobiologist, she studies the evolution of adaptations to the environment in Old World primates including humans.

Her research program is focused in two major areas. Her paleoanthropological research concerns the evolutionary history of Old World monkeys, and currently includes an active field project in China. Her research on the evolution of human adaptations to the environment centers on the evolution of human skin and skin pigmentation, and includes an active field project examining the relationship between skin pigmentation and vitamin D production.

Jablonski is currently collaborating on the development of new approaches to science education in the United States. These approaches have the dual aims of improving the understanding of evolution and human diversity, and stimulating interest among students in pursuing STEM courses and careers.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. headshot

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Alphonse Fletcher University Professor of African American Studies
Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, literary scholar, journalist, cultural critic, and institution builder, Professor Gates has authored or co-authored twenty books and created fourteen documentary films, including Wonders of the African World, African American Lives, Faces of America, Black in Latin America, and Finding Your Roots, his groundbreaking genealogy series that returns to PBS for a third season in January 2016.

His six-part PBS documentary series, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross (2013), which he wrote, executive produced, and hosted, earned the Emmy Award for Outstanding Historical Program—Long Form, as well as the Peabody Award, Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award, and NAACP Image Award. Having written for such leading publications as The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Time, Professor Gates now serves as chairman of TheRoot.com, a daily online magazine he co-founded in 2008, while overseeing the Oxford African American Studies Center, the first comprehensive scholarly online resource in the field. He has also received grant funding to develop a Finding Your Roots curriculum to teach students science through genetics and genealogy. In 2012, The Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Reader, a collection of his writings edited by Abby Wolf, was published. His next film is the four-hour documentary series, And Still I Rise: Black America since MLK, airing on PBS in April 2016; a companion book, which he co-authored with Kevin M. Burke, was published by Ecco/HarperCollins in 2015.

Biz Wright headshot

Elizabeth 'Biz' Wright

Postdoctoral Researcher, Center for Human Evolution and Diversity

Biz recently completed her PhD in Curriculum & Instruction in Science Education at the University of Washington. Prior to her graduate work, Biz taught middle school science in the Boston area for seven years. Her research focuses, in part, on the ways that science teachers make science more accessible for their students, particularly for students who have been marginalized in science classrooms like students of color, students who speak a language other than English at home, students with special needs, and girls. A lot of her research has looked at how students collaborate in problem-based science classrooms.

Biz looks at designing this camp as an opportunity to think about ways to make science appealing, accessible and meaningful for historically underrepresented minorities, as doers and consumers of science.

Tess Wilson headshot

Tess Wilson

Sr. Research Technologist, Center for Human Evolution and Diversity

Tess Wilson, MSLS Clarion University, serves as Nina Jablonski’s primary research and administrative assistant. Under the research umbrella, Tess conducts in-depth literature reviews, data collection, and analysis for all of Dr. Jablonski’s research programs. In her other key role, she assists with publications and outreach, and oversees daily operations of the Jablonski Paleoanthropology Lab and Center for Human Evolution and Diversity.

As Project Manager for the Finding Your Roots summer camp project, Tess assists with grant administration, research protections, and curriculum development.

Our Philosophy

We believed that if the science was about the students personally, it would resonate more deeply. There is no shortage of research that has shown students desire curriculum that is not only relevant to the domain, but personally relevant as well. And while we know that teachers want to develop curriculum that is personally relevant for their students, teachers are faced with the reality of teaching 100-150 culturally, linguistically, and economically diverse students every day. Teachers are held accountable for test scores and effective student progress, and are often bound to curriculum that is tied to local, state, and national standards. We get it. We really do.

Our approach:

This curriculum is grounded in Next Generation Science Standards (more on that later). It is designed to be malleable, inviting teachers to leverage their strengths and their student’s interests. Ideally, its implementation would include faculty from Health & Physical Education, Social Studies & History, English & Language Arts, Mathematics, and the Arts, but it’s not necessary.

What came next:

Once the curriculum was designed, it was implemented as a pilot study in a two-week camp environment at two different locations in the US. Immediately we could tell that there was something special going on. Students were engaged and curious. They asked pointed and challenging questions. They disagreed. They developed hypotheses and research protocols.

One of the most powerful elements of the curriculum is the time that is carved out for students to dig in to a part of the curriculum that captivated their interest. You’ll see more about how that unfolds as we move through the webisodes.

Beyond the academic rigor, it was impossible to overlook the very organic opportunities that students had to share who they are with their instructors and peers. The importance of these personal revelations cannot be understated because the only way for teachers to design and implement personally relevant curriculum, is to truly understand who their students are, and what is personally relevant to them.

The web series:

This series of web episodes and corresponding curricula was inspired by the enthusiasm and creativity of the young scientists who took part in the very first Finding Your Roots Genetics and Genealogy camps. Producers at WPSU Penn State and WETA Washington D.C. recognized the potential for a project of lasting value, power and reach by sharing their stories as they explore, ask questions, discuss, and discover their near and distant ancestry.

Because the “original” Finding Your Roots young scientists were involved in the research component of the curriculum development, they were not able to be filmed for public viewing. Support from the Benkovic Foundation, the Hutchins Institute for African and African American Studies, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and The Rockefeller Foundation made it possible to invite young scientists to Penn State’s Science-U to participate in the Finding Your Roots – The Seedlings camp during the Summer of 2017.

Join us as we relive the fast-paced, energetic, and moving stories of thirteen young scientists from Atlanta, New York, Toronto, Alexandria, Philadelphia, and State College as they learn about who they are genetically, genealogically, and anthropologically.

Web Series Production Credits

  • Writer/Producer/Director Kristian Berg
  • Co-Producer Cheraine Stanford
  • Editor Tyler Henderson
  • Videographer Tyler Henderson
  • Videographer Matthew Stephens
  • Videographer Jordan Huffman
  • Videographer Benjamin J. Webb
  • Field Audio Clint Yoder
  • Field Audio Rick Humber
  • Field Audio Chris Younken
  • Field Audio Mickey Klein
  • Audio Mixer Jen Bortz
  • Creative Director Cole Cullen
  • Intern Samantha Bastress
  • Intern Emma Domico
  • Title Animation Gabriel Ibias
  • Graphics Mike DiPasquale
  • Thomas Wilson
  • Steve Nelson
Project Development & Management
  • Elaine Brzycki
  • Robert Butler
  • Patrick Smith
  • Project Manager Beth Bamford
  • Finance Laura Davis
  • Contracts Joe Caron
Seedlings Camp
  • Camp Instructor Brandon Ogbunu
  • Student Mentor Jeremy Sechrist
  • Student Mentor Spenta Bamji
  • Student Mentor Cheyenne Camp
  • Nina Jablonski
  • Elizabeth Wright
  • Brandon Ogbunu
  • Lindsay Fulton
Executive Producers
  • WPSU Penn State Mindy McMahon
  • Inkwell Media Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
  • McGee Media Dyllan McGee
  • WETA Anne Harrington

Moving forward:

This series of webisodes are here to inspire teachers and students to think about relatedness in broad and inclusive ways, to challenge us to think about the ways in which we are connected, to encourage students (and teachers!) to create durable records of oral and written family history, to share the pieces of who we are with each other.

Contact Us


Customize The Curriculum

Our research-based curriculum can be customized and implemented by cross-content teachers over a time period of your choosing. Content has also been organized to accompany Finding Your Roots - The Seedlings video episodes!

Explore the Full Curriculum

A workshop instructor and student examine a world map and discuss where the believe their ancestors originated from before conducting genealogical research.