I have a love/hate relationship with genetics. It is the natural follow up to fun mitosis activities and meiosis. It is interesting and kids seem to want to dig in immediately, but it is usually taught incorrectly using human traits AND the family tree. Why are those two things troublesome? I’m glad you asked.
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Human traits do not follow a simple inheritance pattern.
Human traits tend to follow complex types of inheritance patterns. This is especially true for traits like hair color and eye color that are polygenic (they have several genes that contribute to them).
The entire premise of brown and blue eyes is wrong, but it is still one of the go-to ideas when it comes to inheritance. If that was the pattern there would only be brown or blue eyes and they would all be the same shade. I don’t like using human traits incorrectly, because it isn’t good science.
That isn’t the only reason I think that teachers should be worried about using family trees in a group setting.
Family tree assignments are NOT inclusive.
Some kids don’t have the information to complete these assignments. Family life is complicated and kids should not be asked to parade their story out to their peers. I know more than a few teachers that have had uncomfortable situations pop up as a result of family tree assignments. I’ve heard of several discovered relatives from using the DNA services available so it can feel invasive.
There are lots of ways that families are made and to continue on with assignments that don’t honor that is hurtful. Plus as I just mentioned, it isn’t good science.
There are better ways to talk about genetics than using family trees. If you need an autosomal recessive pedigree (or any other kind), use animals or pedigrees from royal families. If there is a specific reason you want to review a human trait, but a royal pedigree doesn’t fit consider making up a family tree for use by the entire class.
We are moving into an age where genetic information could become important. It is important to be aware of privacy concerns when dealing with these types of assignments.
Mendel used pea plants in his experiments. For the love of Pete, if you can’t think of anything else use pea plants over the family tree assignment. You can see things like colors in flowered plants. You see what percentage of the offspring have white flowers compared to purple flowers.
You can also make it as fun as you want by having students pick traits and the inheritance pattern for a made up species. Start with monohybrid crosses (only a single gene) and a simple dominant trait and recessive trait.
All kids need is a little imagination, some guidance, and a Punnett Square to have lots of fun. You can even have them create an alien race on a fictional planet and include ELA standards. Kids love to make brochures and presentations. You might want to start with some basics first.
Mendelian Genetics Activities
I like to focus on dominant/recessive patterns of inheritance first. Starting with one trait (monohybrid) and going to two traits (dihybrid) crosses. Mendel bred pea plants and determined dominant and recessive traits based on the ratio of the phenotypes of the offspring. He also went on to discover other inheritance patterns.
You can do worksheets and use games to explore simple genetics practice problems. If possible, I prefer hands-on. I teach these concepts using my Easter Egg Genetics Lab.
In this lab, students explore monohybrid and dihybrid crosses of simple dominant/recessive patterns. There is also an optional part 2 where students work with co-dominance and incomplete dominance patterns using a hands-on lab and genetics problems worksheet. Students get a chance to see the difference between phenotype and genotype. This does require setup in the beginning, but I’ve used the same eggs for 15 years now.