African American Lives
Analyzing the Evidence
The Science and the Investigators
Who am I? A Genealogy Guide
Sharing Stories
For Educators
About the Series

For Educators
Intro Lesson Plan 1 Lesson Plan 2 Lesson Plan 3
  by Ashlinn Quinn
  • Overview
  • Procedures for Teachers

    In this lesson, students will learn about genetic lineages and will explore several different DNA tests (admixture, mitochondrial DNA, and y-chromosome) that are used to trace genetic heritage. Using segments of the PBS series AFRICAN AMERICAN LIVES and the seriesŐ companion web site, they will discover how advances in the field of population genomics allow researchers to trace genetic "markers" in groups of people, extending the traditional techniques employed by genealogists to trace family history. Finally, students will use genealogical charts to trace the data gained through genetic technologies, learning what such testing can -- and cannot -- reveal.

    This lesson can be used as a pre- or post-viewing activity for the PBS series AFRICAN AMERICAN LIVES, or as an independent lesson for the science/social studies classroom. A basic knowledge of the genetic basis for heredity is required.

    Grade Level: 9-12

    Time Allotment: Two to three 45-minute class periods

    Subject Matter: Biology, Genetics, Anthropology, Social Studies


    Students will be able to:

    • Read a genealogical chart;

    • Explain how genetic testing can contribute to genealogical research;

    • Understand three types of DNA testing that can provide data about ancestry;

    • Describe the location of various types of DNA within the cell;

    • Understand the difference between genetic ancestry and "race."


    From the National Science Education Standards for grades 9-12, available online at

    CONTENT STANDARD C: As a result of their activities in grades 9-12, all students should develop understanding of:

    Molecular basis of heredity:

    • In all organisms, the instructions for specifying the characteristics of the organism are carried in DNA, a large polymer formed from subunits of four kinds (A, G, C, and T).

    • 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. Changes in DNA (mutations) occur spontaneously at low rates. Some of these changes make no difference to the organism, whereas others can change cells and organisms. Only mutations in germ cells can create the variation that changes an organism's offspring.

    CONTENT STANDARD E: As a result of activities in grades 9-12, all students should develop:

    Understandings about science and technology:

    • Science often advances with the introduction of new technologies. Solving technological problems often results in new scientific knowledge. New technologies often extend the current levels of scientific understanding and introduce new areas of research.

    • Technological solutions may create new problems. Science, by its nature, answers questions that may or may not directly influence humans. Sometimes scientific advances challenge people's beliefs and practical explanations concerning various aspects of the world.

    From the the National Standards for History, available online at:


    The student in grades 5-12:

    • Understands why the Americas attracted Europeans, why they brought enslaved Africans to their colonies, and how Europeans struggled for control of North America and the Caribbean.

    • Understands how political, religious, and social institutions emerged in the English colonies.

    • Understands how the values and institutions of European economic life took root in the colonies, and how slavery reshaped European and African life in the Americas.

    From the the National Geography Standards, available online at:


    As a result of their activities in grades K-12, all students should:

    • Understand the characteristics, distribution, and migration of human populations on Earth's surface.



    AFRICAN AMERICAN LIVES, Episode Four, "Beyond the Middle Passage"

    Click here to purchase a copy of AFRICAN AMERICAN LIVES at PBS Shop for Teachers.


    For the class:

    TV and VCR

    Computers with internet access

    For each student:

    • Calculator

    • Genealogy Organizer (download here)

    • Admixture Calculation Organizer (download here)

    • What Does it Test? Organizer (download here, download the answer key here)


    Prior to teaching this lesson, bookmark all of the Web sites used in the lesson on each computer in your classroom, or upload all links to an online bookmarking utility such as Preview all of the Web sites (listed at the end of the lesson) and video clips used in the lesson to make certain that they are appropriate for your students. Make enough copies of each of the worksheets for the students in your class.

    CUE the tape of AFRICAN AMERICAN LIVES, Episode Four, "Beyond the Middle Passage" past the opening credits to the scene showing Henry Louis Gates, Jr. standing on a beach.

    When using media, provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, a specific task to complete and/or information to identify during or after viewing video segments, Web sites, or other multimedia elements.

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