About the Curriculum

I’ve been working on my family genealogy and I’m stuck. Can you help?

No, and yes. Unfortunately we aren’t highly trained or experienced genealogists, so we won't be very helpful! But, we’ve spent a lot of time working with highly trained and experienced genealogists and we’ve cultivated a set of very useful websites where our young scientists have had success.

Check these out:

I’m interested in getting a DNA test. Can you help?

No, and yes. We don’t do the DNA tests, we purchased them from a commercial provider and used their web platform. There are several currently available; ancestry.com and 23andme.com are two of the most popular providers. Our mention here should not be interpreted as an endorsement of either. Do your research to determine which test and Terms of Service meet your needs.

I work with a group in my town and we’ve been looking for a curriculum like this. Can you help?

YES! We can! The elements of the curriculum that appear in the web series appear alongside the episodes and the curriculum in its entirety is available.

How do you steer the philosophical conversations around who and how we define who we are for children who were adopted?

First, be were very clear about using inclusive language the discussing the unique "issues" these young scholars would have to consider.

Our curriculum is framed around three questions in service to the greater question of Who Am I? We ask our young scientists to consider who they are genetically, genealogically/socioculturally, and intentionally. It is our most sincere belief that it takes more than genes to make a family.

You may not be the genetic product of your family, but you are very much a genealogical and sociocultural product! To that end, we encourage campers to use what they learn about their genetic ancestry as a catalyst for researching who their biological genealogy/culture. What foods are eaten, what holidays are celebrated, what lullabies are sung, and in what ways might you want to incorporate them into your life and the life of your family?

We should point out that we also reminded our campers that their adoptive families' genealogical and sociocultural histories, are their histories, too, now.

Are there any issues with absence of genetic or genealogical information with any particular population?

Technological advancements in molecular biology have made it pretty easy to recover genetic information from almost everyone, with varying degrees of resolution. Some populations have more detail with regards to region/place of origin, but as a whole, most individuals are able to recover meaningful ancestral information from their genomic data.

Genealogy, however, is much more individual and population dependent, so it can be difficult to recover lots of information for some individuals.

Learn more from Episode 7

Do you see any differences in resources used by students to uncovering family histories that are correlated with different cultural backgrounds of students?

During the pilot of this project we had a handful of resources that were mostly helpful to families of European descent. This was frustrating for our young scientists whose families had non-European roots in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, etc.

When you run into these issues, which will inevitably happen, take the opportunity to use the lack of records as a means of developing a group discussion: Why can't we find the records? Is it because of privacy laws or because the records never existed in the first place? What was happening during the historical era that might explain the lack of records? The students are very aware of these issues, and can learn from each other about these limitations.

For students who are frustrated by the lack of records, it is helpful to encourage them to research:

  • Persons in history that share the same name as themselves or others in their family tree
  • Research the neighborhood in which they currently live

The quest to identify genealogical and genetic ancestry resources that are accessible and/or scientifically rigorous, continues. Here's where we start:

You mention an increase in student engagement-how are you measuring that? Are you measuring any other student impacts?

We're using a number of metrics as evidence of engagement: student self-report (what they say/write about their experiences during and after camp), capture of student behaviors/exchanges, student responses on pre/post-camp surveys, and one-on-one interviews. We also are following a majority of our campers (n = 100) over the next ten years as they navigate middle school, high school, and college. We also administered pre/post tests to identify uptake of information.

What grade levels is the curriculum appropriate for?

The curriculum in its current form is written at a 6th grade level, for implementation with middle schoolers. It can be implemented in pieces, or as a whole, by a single instructor or many.

We would love to modify the curriculum for younger scientists (K-5), as well as older ones (9-12). Interested teachers, please use the contact information at the bottom of this page.

Are there teacher professional development opportunities around the curriculum?

Not at this time. We're in process of conducting some teacher focus groups to help us make decisions about professional development opportunities in the future.

Are science classes the most natural fit for this curriculum?

Our dream is that a group of teachers from within the same school would endeavor to implement the curriculum together. Not only would that share the burden, but it would organically show kids that science doesn't happen only in science class.

We want teachers to see this as seamless, and an opportunity to simultaneously meet standards, provide space for kids to get to know themselves in a genetic and genealogical landscape, and learn about their students deeply and authentically. We have a ton of research that shows us that kids learn best when they feel connected to the curriculum and they feel that it is relevant to them. But what is relevant? You have to know kids well in order to answer that question, and then move forward.

Do you get parental consent prior to participation?

We most definitely obtained parent consent and student assent. Parents/guardians were always in control of their camper's data. Our campers always maintained the right of refusal (if they didn't want to share/disclose any part of their personal data, then it wasn't shared). We have cultivated a set of Case Studies (DNA and genealogical data from real volunteers; only the names have been changed) for use when families decide they they would rather not use personal information.

For implementation in any classroom (formal or informal), parent/guardian consent is not negotiable.

Have you had any issues with parents having concerns/objections when certain types of information is uncovered?

We worked very hard to narrow the scope of research, but realized that there was no way to anticipate what a student would discover about their families while conducting genealogical research. Rather than have resources (we cultivated a few), we had a plan.

In the event that a discovery was made, the parent/guardian would be notified and next steps would be determined together. By-and-large, this level of intervention was never necessary.

Typically, if something was discovered (a great-great-great-great-grandparent was a gunslinger who shot someone, and it was in the newspaper!), the camper took a moment to wrap their head around the reality that, while this individual may be related, you are not responsible for their actions).

Do you have some any resources in your back pocket that you can pull out if a student does find something very difficult to handle?

We are in the process of conducting focus group work with teachers to see what resources they feel like they would need to have the best implementation possible.

Honestly, sometimes it's a matter of sitting with a kid and saying "I hear you. This is hard to think about and make sense of, and I wish I had something better or more meaningful to say, but I have to settle for being here with you and feeling what you're feeling." That's pretty powerful too.

We had a young man point to his genetic ancestry and say "The only reason I'm at all European is because some white guy raped one of my ancestors." And while one's instinct is to move as far away from that truth as possible, no one is served by avoidance. Healing can't happen if we bury our heads and hearts in the sand. One of our goals in writing the curriculum was to toe the line of comfortably uncomfortable. That's where growth happens. Our advice to teachers would be, don't be afraid to be uncomfortable.

How do you help students navigate their conceptions of race versus ancestry. Both are so important for one's identity, but seem to be frequently confounded.

Race is an extremely important and sensitive topic, and one that must be navigated carefully in conversations about ancestry. On one end, we don’t want to ignore its social importance and implications. On the other, we do not want to conflate the social/arbitrary with the fixed/biological. This isn’t easy, even among professional geneticists!

With regards to young people, there are several strategies for how one can engage this. We took several approaches, all of which touched the issue in different ways:

1) One of the central messages of the larger project was that our identities are the productive of the “genetic, genealogical and intentional selves.” This was the brainchild of Dr. Elizabeth Wright, and was an extremely effective way of anchoring controversial discussions about identity. We aren’t any one of these three “selves”, but the product of all of them, playing out in different ways.

Navigating conversations about race is often facilitated by the way the “table is set” with regards to how we think about identity in general. The race conversation, then, becomes an extension of conversations about identity, with some very specific and important differences.

2) One way to discuss race is to re-frame it in terms of "genetic variation within the human population," and to demystify the differences that have such strong social importance. For example: a lot of race (as we’ve defined it socially) is about physical characteristics such as skin color. We addressed this by having a detailed conversation about the genetics, evolution and biology of skin color. The students really liked this experience. The goal of this exercise is to communicate that variation is a feature of any population of organisms, and that variation often manifests in physical traits. Skin color happens to be one of them. (Although we leveraged notable experts on these topics, one doesn't have to be a practicing biological anthropologist to have or lead this discussion.)

Relatedly: In class, we often tried to use examples that turn our common understanding of race on its head, challenging students to think differently about these categories. One example is the phenotypic similarity between two largely unrelated ancestral groups: individuals of aboriginal Australian ancestry and individuals of sub-Saharan African ancestry. In this situation, “ancestry” as we commonly understand it and “race” don’t overlap, which reveals how arbitrary and imprecise racial categories can be.

3) Lastly, how do we drive these things home while paying full and proper attention to race as a social category (and it’s profound implications in the modern world)? This is an area that we continue to learn about, try to improve on, and don’t have all of the answers to. (so by all means, share your experiences and pointers!)

The way that we currently think about it is this: If we can soften the hard brackets around the notion that people fall into fixed biological categories, then the social conversation about race (that many students are experiencing first hand, in life) becomes easier to discuss.

For example: the problem that our instructor, Brandon, experienced as a young African-American boy was that he actually felt different. Not only in terms of his social understanding of the experiences of some populations vs. others, but because of an unfortunate sense of essential difference.

Our goal is to chip away at the essential part of this (mis)understanding: to recognize that humans can differ in many ways, that variation is part of who we are as a species, and that we can decide to do something about the ways that we treat each other.

About the Research

Why are you doing this research?

Well, there are a lot of reasons why we are doing this research. One reason is that, as a nation, the US is working really hard to prepare students to go into science as a career and invent, discover, and push us to do things we never thought possible. Another reason is that we want to make sure that all kids feel like science is an option for them. Historically (over a really long period of time), women, minorities, people who speak languages other than English, people who grew up in poor neighborhoods, and students with special needs haven’t felt really welcome in science classrooms or laboratories. We want to figure out how to change that.

Why are you asking kids to use their own DNA?

Even though we have had the opportunity to test our own DNA for about ten years, for most of that time it was either really expensive or controversial (which made people upset). We think that students will have a more positive experience learning about science if they are using their own genetic information. What do you think? Yes or no?

What if campers didn’t want to talk about their genes or genealogy?

That was not a problem! We hoped that our young scientists would want to participate as much as possible, but we also understood that sometimes they might not want to talk about something. That’s totally fine, and we recommend keeping it that way in your programs/classrooms. If kids are asked a question they don’t want to answer, they should just say “I pass.” No one should ever push students or try to pressure them into sharing.

What if I don’t believe in evolution?

We aren’t here to be critical of, or challenge, anyone’s beliefs. Faith is an amazing thing – believing in things we can’t see, hear, touch. Science is different though. During this camp we will look, listen, touch, measure, collect and assess data that we will use to ask questions, make claims, support our claims with evidence, and use that evidence to explain our thinking.

What’s a FitBit?

A FitBit is an activity tracker that you wear on your wrist like a watch. It measures how many steps you take, how far you’ve traveled, how many calories you’ve burned, how many floors you’ve climbed, and your heart rate throughout the day.

Why are we using FitBits?

We are using FitBits for a couple of reasons. One reason is that it is really interesting to keep track of your activity. I wear one and I know that when I haven’t been very active, I am reminded to take a walk! Another reason is that the FitBit collects a lot of data that you can enter into an Excel table and track that data over time. Do you have a day that you are very active or really lazy? Is your heart rate off the charts in the morning/afternoon/evening? Can you make a prediction based on some of your data? How much data do you need in order to make a prediction? We’ll talk about all of that!

What if I’m adopted?

That’s great (my mom is adopted)! Your DNA is your DNA. The DNA test will tell you about the ancestry of your birth parents without identifying them. When you do genealogical research, you will research your adoptive parents. These are your parents. They pass on traditions and memories that you will carry with you forever. Your genealogical research will investigate where and when your forever parents and their parents and their parents were born, and other important stories as they choose to share with you. Exciting, right?!? That said, keep in mind that you can research about the regions your biologicals parents were from. You can learn about customs and traditions, spirituality and faith, feasts and celebrations, lullabies and folk tales. These are a part of your history too.

What if I’m curious about other information in my DNA?

If you want to investigate other aspects of your DNA that we don’t cover during the camp, you should talk to your parents about going through the information with them. After camp you should have some great ideas, and teaching is a great way to learn more!

About the Camp

How can someone attend the camp?

We are currently working on collaborating with schools, camps, and museums who want to offer a Finding Your Roots camp. Currently, we know that Science-U at Penn State offers a one-week version of the Finding Your Roots camp. Visit the Science-U website for additional information.

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.