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Overview of camp design

The overarching goal of the “Finding Your Roots Genetics and Genealogy” Camp is to look at ways to increase diversity and interest in STEM among underrepresented minorities. More specifically, we are interested in identifying ways to help students – particularly those who have been historically marginalized in science classrooms and laboratories – have a positive experience with science, be successful in science classes, and want to continue their participation in science as they go on to high school and college.

To do that, we are designing a camp that will be offered at Penn State University and the University of South Carolina during Summer 2016. The Museum of Natural History in New York City will join the project the following year, giving us three sites during Summer 2017.

The camp will engage students in a personalized genetics and genealogy approach to science where students will use their own DNA - via analysis from the personal genetics company 23andMe - in conjunction with genealogical research that the students will conduct, to look at part of what makes them biologically "them." 

The educational research component

Our research interests are in examining whether a personalized genetics and genealogy approach 1) appeals to middle school students; and 2) fosters a connection to science as something that they want to pursue academically and/or professionally, particularly among students who have not always experienced success in science classrooms.  The grant makes it possible for us to cover 90% of camp costs for campers and their families.

The science

During camp, students will participate in a series of learning and experiential events that will address science material and processes across several content areas including, genetics, evolution, health and fitness, probability, prediction, generating representations and models, generating tables and graphs, etc.

The genetics

All students at the Finding Your Roots Genetics and Genealogy Camp will use information from their own DNA to examine aspects of their ancestry, including where on the globe their ancestors lived, as well as the partial genetic basis of a variety of traits listed below.

Student genotype and related information will be used in focused and limited ways to give students the opportunity to understand for themselves some of the connections between who they are genetically and who they are phenotypically and socially.  During camp students will look at traits like odor/taste perception, protein expression within fast twitch muscles, and lactose metabolism. Students will be asked to consider the durability of these traits and their possible role in survival to reproduction, as well as their possible roles on the playground. 

There are four ways that we are thinking about genetic information as it pertains to the camp classroom:

  1. Global maternal/paternal ancestry (e.g., where our ancestors came from)
  2. Traits that warrant consideration regarding their role in survival to reproduction (e.g., odor/taste perception)
  3. Traits that warrant consideration regarding their relationship to diet and lifestyle (e.g., caffeine metabolism, lipid metabolism)
  4. Traits that are surprising, cool, interesting (e.g., Duffy antigen persisting in populations where it isn’t particularly helpful; earwax type)

Rationale for the inclusion of proposed traits

We have a reason for using the traits that we are going to have you look at and discuss.


Rationale for inclusion

Mitochondrial ancestry

Mitochondrial markers indicate the geographic ancestry of the student’s maternal line.

Y-chromosome ancestry

Y-chromosome markers indicate the geographic ancestry of the male student’s paternal line.

Autosomal ancestry with AIMs

Autosomal ancestry markers include genetic information that has been passed on from the student’s parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on. While there is no way to tell which piece of genetic information was passed down from which relative (without testing all of one’s relatives), students benefit from seeing the geographic connections associated with these markers.

Autosomal ancestry w/out AIMs

Eye color

Eye color/patterns, hair color/thickness/curl, colorblindness, earwax type, and height are heritable traits that offer a safe, entry-level opportunity to talk about the connection between genotype and phenotype, giving students an opportunity to make an assertion about the movement of those genes from generation to generation.


Iris patterns (crypts)

Iris patterns (furrows)

Iris patterns (rings)

Hair color

Hair curl

Hair thickness


Earwax type


Muscle performance

The alpha-actinin-3 gene is associated with a protein that plays a role in skeletal muscles. This particular trait might resonate with students who have personal experience with their reactions to running short/long distances. Are you a better sprinter, or are you in it for the long haul?

Bitter taste perception

Bitter taste perception, as well as odor perception, are heritable traits that offer safe entry into a discussion about traits that may, though not necessarily, increase an organism’s survival (DON’T EAT THAT) to reproduction, thereby passing on the trait.

Odor detection

Lactose intolerance

Lactose intolerance and caffeine metabolism are two traits that will give students the opportunity to think about the connection between personal diet choices and what may be bad/good/better for their physiology.

Caffeine metabolism

Malaria resistance

Malaria resistance (the Duffy marker) gives us an opportunity to discuss traits that get passed on even in populations where the trait offers no/unknown significant benefit or increase for survival to reproduction.

HDL (good cholesterol)

Like lactose intolerance and caffeine metabolism, the HDL (good cholesterol) marker opens up a conversation with students about the connection between personal diet and exercise choices and what may be bad/good/better for their physiology. Note: this is not a discussion about weight.


Skin color

Skin color is, most likely, the most challenging of the traits that we propose to explore. That said, honest discussion about the social construction of race as a function of skin color in the context of understanding that biologists argue that there is no such thing as a genetic “race,” could help students think about their beliefs about skin color as a function of genetics as well as a social construct.


The genealogy

In addition to the analysis and consideration of personal genetic information, students will utilize online databases to research their personal and familial genealogies. In partnership with the New England Historical Genealogical Society, students will have access to both free and subscription genealogy services, including guidance from an experienced genealogist.

Students will interview parents and other willing family members, asking questions about where and when family members were born, as well as the names, birthdate and birthplace information of other family members. Students may also choose to ask questions about how family members came to be in America, family traditions and other experiences they had growing up. Students and their parents are in control of how rigorously they pursue this research. Parents may guide their children away from genealogical storylines by not providing names, dates, and locations for students to investigate. As such, our expectation is that the families will remain the locus of control with respect to the information they choose to share.

The product

During the camp, students will create a durable record of what they learn. At present, the intention is for students to use iPads and an application called iBook Editor to stitch together the pieces of their genetic and genealogical puzzles. Students will have the option to create a hand-generated product if they prefer and choose to do so. The goal is to ask students to consider these books as teaching tools that they could use to share what they have learned about the process of genetic testing, analysis, and reflection, as well as the process of genealogical research, assessment, and consideration.

How we plan to collect data, what we do with it, and how it is stored

Observations, surveys, interviews, photographs, and student work help researchers understand what students experience in the classroom.

Observations: We will observe activities in classrooms throughout the duration of camp. We will take notes and use a video camera or audio recorder during the observation. We do this so that we don’t have to ask a lot of questions and interrupt what’s happening. Instead, we look at and listen to the video after camp is over. When we do that, we are listening to what kids say about science. We also look at how enthusiastic or interested kids appear to be.

Surveys: We may ask students to fill out a survey to help us understand what they experience during camp. This helps us to know what you think. There are no right or wrong responses. The most important thing is to tell us what you really think. If you hate a project or part of a lesson, tell us! We want to change it to make it better.

Interviews: We may ask students to do an interview with one of the researchers. In the interview we will ask them to talk about their camp experiences. We do interviews in addition to surveys because we can follow up when you say something really interesting and we want to know more about it. That’s hard to do in a survey.

Photographs: We may ask students if we can photograph them while they are working. We may also ask students if we may photograph their work. We do this because other people are going to want to see your good work. Pictures help us to tell the story of what happened during camp.

Privacy and security: At the very beginning of camp, we will assign every camper a "fake name" (that’s called a pseudomym) and use that name on any survey, interview note, or work that you do. We do that so that no one except the researchers will know that you said/wrote/did it. We do this to protect your privacy. Student/family contact information will be kept in a locked computer, and will never be shared with anyone outside of the research group. The computer where contact information is stored is only accessible by the researchers for the duration of the study.

Addressing risks

Prior to camp, students will submit a DNA sample to 23andMe (a pre-paid/postage-paid kit will be provided). Parents are not sampled as a part of the project.

Genetic information from the 23andMe analysis will be used within limited and focused parameters described above. Students will not be coached by project/camp staff to explore 23andMe resources beyond the scope of the above mentioned traits. Students and families are encouraged to talk about this at home and investigate the 23andMe website once camp is over.

Parents will submit their child’s DNA sample via a kit from 23andMe, provided by the camp. When the data is available, parents will upload the data to a secure location managed by project staff. Project/camp staff will maintain possession of student DNA data, using only the information for the traits listed above, until the end of camp, at which time the data file will be destroyed.

The camp/project will not maintain custody of any identifiable genotypic or phenotypic data beyond what students choose to disclose during surveys, interviews, student work, and/or assessments. No identifiable information will be used that could be connected to a student specifically.

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