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Opinion: Genomics education should be introduced earlier in the curriculum. An interview with Lisa Mullan

We caught up with Lisa Mullan (creator of Dinky Amigos, lovable characters that aim to teach a young audience about DNA and genetics) and discussed why she thinks genomics education should be introduced into the curriculum earlier than it currently is.

 Lisa has a PhD in Biochemistry and now endeavours to make the science of DNA and genetics accessible to a younger audience through her books and workshops.

 Why do you teach genomics at pre-schools and primary schools?

I think the study of DNA is no longer a luxury but a necessity. Science has made great leaps forward in this arena that there is enough proven information to break down to the level of a child.

DNA are the instructions that inform everything we are and a lot of what we do and how we do it. Sadly, these are also the same instructions that can go wrong and cause catastrophic results for our health. This can be seen in the myriad inherited diseases such as Cystic Fibrosis, Sickle Cell Anaemia or Huntington’s Disease as well as extremely rare cases where no one yet has an answer. We are also seeing it first-hand in the fight against the current COVID-19 outbreak as it becomes clear that some people have a genetic makeup that makes them more vulnerable to the virus that causes this disease.

Much of the work to combat and treat these diseases relies on an understanding of the genetic foundations of them. Increases in technology mean we can sequence pretty much anything we wish to, but the bottleneck is in the analysis.

Also, DNA is being used for many things from nano-robots to data storage.

Jobs in the genomics sector will skyrocket as we turn our attention to nucleotide chemistry. These are the jobs our children will be aspiring towards and I think we would be remiss to leave the fundamentals until later in their school career.

But isn’t genomics too complex a subject for that level?

As with everything, it depends on how you teach it. Possibly the easiest way in is through forensics. Children love a good whodunnit and the science of DNA profiling can easily be incorporated into this by using pattern matching. (This is also one of the subjects on the EYFS curriculum and fits beautifully with giving much younger children an awareness of DNA.)

Evolution and Inheritance is already a topic on the National Curriculum for the upper stages of primary school. At that age, I have found that children are well aware that something called DNA exists and so it becomes more a question of explaining to them what it is and how it works.

The challenge here is the timescale on which everything happens. Millions (or billions!) of years is a long time so this needs to be condensed so we can instead focus on the actual changes that happen.

Using analogies with Lego and letters, it is not difficult to explain cellular building blocks and a DNA sequence. Once the concept of the sequence has been understood, it is a short leap to show in a basic fashion how different sequences can code for different traits.

Children understand everything at their own level. There will be some who just take away the existence of genetic material and others who will get the concept of instructions and mutation. Irrespective of what they take away, I have seen that the subject is stimulating for all children and the enthusiasm and understanding garnered in an initial hour-long introduction carries over into related activities weeks or even months later.

Doesn’t that increase the burden on teaching staff?

Only 10% of current primary staff have a science background of any description so it is natural that education tends towards subjects that teachers feel more comfortable with.

There are plenty of initiatives to get science into the classroom and I certainly think genomics should be a part of that. It is unrealistic to expect every teacher to do this at the same level, but a basic understanding of this is certainly possible and should be included ast part of their CPD programme.

Due to the current way teaching is assessed in the UK, it is difficult to introduce yet a further topic into the school day, which is why I started my Genetics for Kids series. It involves the characters I created to represent the genetic nucleotides and I call them the Dinky Amigos.

This is a series of books narrated from the point of view of Alina, a cartoon representation of adenine, and telling the story of DNA and how it works (or doesn’t work!) in the body. The books highlight scientific jargon and explain it not only in the text, but also in a glossary at the end. The story includes information on mutation, human biology, evolution and scientific investigation written at a level appropriate for upper primary and lower secondary school children. All ends are tied up and the book can be introduced to the classroom as part of a literacy guided reading session or as an addition to the library for curious children looking for something different.

Art is a great way of illustrating concepts and the science is explained in both words and pictures, with common themes repeated in various ways throughout the book. It provides knowledge for both the child and their teacher and is designed to impart the maximum amount of information whilst taking up the minimum amount of time for the teacher. I have put in the effort, so they don’t have to!

What are the Dinky Amigos and how can they help?

The Dinky Amigos bring DNA to life. They are cartoon representation of the chemical involved and have been created as little characters.

Through Alina, Tristan, Crispin, and Gina, the ATCG repetition of the DNA molecule can be represented. The chemistry and biochemistry are built into the drawings and so any mention of this is unnecessary. Thus, some of the complexities of the subject can be brought into the  sub-concious learning.

The characters are also coloured, so a pattern emerges not just from the shapes and letters, but also through the colours, hammering home the sequence and repetition aspect of genomic biochemistry.

The Dinky Amigos also offers a vehicle for bringing the subject down to the level of even the youngest child as art and science are combined into something they can relate to.

Uracil is also catered for in the form of Udan (I also have characters for some of the synthetic nucleotides!). He hasn’t yet made many appearances, although as I work on more information about the latest SARS-CoV-2 virus, his time in the spotlight is growing…

In these times where DNA is the word on everyone’s lips, children must understand the concept and the personal relevance to them.

What relevance does this teaching have for our children’s future?

It is my opinion that science has as much an obligation as any sector to explain what they are doing. Unfortunately, many scientists would rather immerse themselves in research than try to explain what they do. So it is the job of science communicators to do this for them.

“Knowledge is power” is a phrase you hear time again and it is true. If we are serious about educating our young people, then we must also be serious about equipping them on all aspects of life and not just sub-sections of it. Well-being, disease and conservation are inextricably linked by DNA and associated genetics.

It informs how we live, but it will also start to play a bigger part in informing our healthcare plans. Our health system is looking to invest heavily in DNA technologies across the board. Both biologists and software engineers are crucial to this success in a subject known as bioinformatics.

Bioinformaticians need to combine the strict logical thought processes needed to develop computing software with the freer thinking associated with biological sciences. It is a difficult marriage.

Introducing the basics of DNA at a young age ensures a biological foundation for the child that later veers towards the straight logical. This can only lead to a greater understanding later, providing a greater framework for future genomics to further develop technologies.

If we wish to push the boundaries of what we know about genetics and genomics and continue to live in a world of both technology and nature, we must include a fundamental understanding of how those two things thrive to those that represent that future – our children.

 


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