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It's Genetic--Or Is It?
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Grade Levels: 9-12

Estimated Time: 2 class periods

Introduction: This lesson explores the age-old discussion of nature vs. nurture: how much of our individuality is based on inheritance and how much is shaped by our environment? Students explore different traits as genetic or environmental and then discuss issues of accountability for genetically-determined personality traits.

Materials Needed
Teaching Strategies
Assessment Ideas
Extension Ideas
Standards Correlations
About the Author

Lesson Objectives:
Students will:

  • Identify examples of the interplay between genes and environment on certain traits
  • Discuss how the Human Genome Project has led to a greater understanding of the role of genes on complex traits
  • Evaluate and take a stand on an ethical issue involving genetically influenced complex behaviors

Materials Needed:

Teaching Strategy:

  1. Ask students "What does the phrase 'It's genetic!' mean?" Ask students to brainstorm a list of traits they think are genetically determined. Ask if they think that their personalities are genetically determined. To expand this discussion, ask students to list the ways their personalities are similar to the personalities of one or both parents. Do they think this is a result of genetics, or environment? How could scientists test this? (E.g., studying childen who have been adopted and their birth parents, etc.)

  2. Have each student (or pair of students, if you prefer) complete the Genes vs. Environment worksheet.

  3. Provide students with copies of, or direct students to, articles posted at each of the following Web sites:

  4. After reading the articles, discuss how both genes and environment may have influenced each of the traits on the worksheet. Explain how the Human Genome Project has helped to identify genes linked to behaviors, such as addiction, thrill seeking, and depression, as well as genes linked to diseases and physical traits. Also explain that even physical traits, such as obesity, are influenced by both genetic and environmental factors. Students should write explanations of this interplay between genes and environment in the comment section of their worksheets, as a result of this class discussion.

  5. Next class period, show the video, "Genes on Trial: Genetics, Behavior & the Law." After viewing the video, direct students to "Could We? The History of Genetics" at http://www.pbs.org/fredfriendly/ourgenes-old/could_we.html and to "Should We? How to Think Ethically" at http://www.pbs.org/fredfriendly/ourgenes-old/should_we.html.

    Have students take a side and write a position paper expressing their viewpoint on the Tracy Islander story from the video.

Assessment Ideas:
Student understanding may be assessed through participation in class discussion, worksheet responses, and a well-supported position paper.

Extension Ideas:

  • Research the Human Genome Project to find evidence of genetic markers associated with complex behaviors.
  • Research real-life court cases, based on genetics and liability.
  • Write and act out a play illustrating a dilemma of the accountability for genetic behaviors.

Correlation to Standards:

Correlation to National Science Standards:

  1. CONTENT STANDARD C: As a result of their activities in grades 9-12, all students should develop understanding of molecular basis of heredity:
    • Most of the cells in a human contain two copies of each of 22 different chromosomes. In addition, there is a pair of chromosomes that determines sex: a female contains two X chromosomes and a male contains one X and one Y chromosome. Transmission of genetic information to offspring occurs through egg and sperm cells that contain only one representative from each chromosome pair.
  2. CONTENT STANDARD F: As a result of activities in grades 9-12, all students should develop understanding of science and technology in local, national, and global challenges:
    • Individuals and society must decide on proposals involving new research and the introduction of new technologies into society. Decisions involve assessment of alternatives, risks, costs, and benefits and consideration of who benefits and who suffers, who pays and gains, and what the risks are and who bears them. Students should understand the appropriateness and value of basic questions--"What can happen?"--"What are the odds?"--and "How do scientists and engineers know what will happen?"

Note: This lesson plan is also correlated to state science standards through the PBS TeacherSource Web site.

About the Author: Author Viki Babcock taught biology and physical science for 5 years at Hannibal High School in Hannibal, Missouri. She is currently teaching biology, zoology and botany at DeSoto High School in DeSoto, Missouri.

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