Taking Risks in Curricular Outcomes: Towards an Open-ended Genetics Project

Wil Franklin's picture

A work in progress is offered here in hopes that the following lesson on genetic ancestry analysis can develop into an open-ended learning activity.

The idea emerged out of several activities already in use in an Introductory Biology course.  Students extract their own DNA out of a cheek swab and then amplify and genotype a ALU marker on Chromosome 9.  In addition, students read and discuss a 2003, Scientific American article titled "What is race?"

These activities challenge students to think about genomic level variation and how it relates to or correlates to disease risk, ethnicity and phenotypic variation in general. One of the most gripping questions that arise out of this set of activities stems from the observation that there is more variability across different “socially” defined ethnicities then there exists among members of the same “socially” defined groups.  This begs many important questions like, “how can a group be a group if they are not like each other?” What is the meaning of an ethnic group if there is more variability among them then between other groups?

The following lesson is a first attempt to allow students to engage with these interesting questions from their own angle of inquiry as well as discover others that may be unanticipated.  It attempts to place the set of activities in a student constructed context.

Please tell me your thoughts, critiques and suggestions in the comment section below.



Determining Genetic Ancestry: Where do we come from?


Project Challenge

You are a recent college graduate in biology.  You love genetics and you also want to work for yourself, running your own business.  You decide to start a company that determines individuals ancestry based on personal DNA. You know this to be useful for estimating disease risk correlated to ethnicity and by those interested in genealogy.  Clients send in a cheek swab or blood sample and your company will analyze the clients DNA and reports back their genetic make up - how many “ethnic groups” and in what proportions.  A quick Google search for “admixture analysis”, “ancestry analysis” and “genomic genealogy” yields many commercial companies already providing such services.  Never the less, you know the field is still very new and the methodology to determine ancestry is still evolving, so you believe with a little research you can develop a scientific methodology that delivers superior results and thus a more meaningful product to your customers.



Project Requirements

Due in your “Assignment Blog”, the week of December 8-10 is a report of the methods and analysis you will run for your new “ancestry” business. Every student must turn in a report. The report should include a bulleted or numbered outline of the steps of your method and analysis as well as a written explanation of your methods and the interpretation of results in the form you think any “lay” client would understand.  Remember you are providing a service to the general public and they will have to understand what you are doing and why that method tells them who their ancestors were. That suggests that you do not have to go into every detail of every method. It is far more important to be able to explain the purpose and meaning of the method and what role the method plays in determining ancestry. Think of this as the “Homepage” of the website of your new business, where prospective clients can shop your product.  If your “Homepage” is clear, concise and organized, you may be able to capture a piece of this growing market.



Project Guidelines

  • You may work individually or in groups.  If you choose to collaborate with others, the only requirement is that at least one member of that group is your lab partner or someone in your scheduled lab.  Lab groups from different lab sections may pair up as well.  The size limit to the group is open, but it is recommended that it not exceed 4-6.  However, at any point groups or group members may consult with other groups.  For this assignment, there is no proprietary element to the business you are developing.  You are to draw on any resource available to develop a superior product.  Regardless of whether you are working in a group or individually, every individual student will submit in their “Assignment Blog” a personal copy of the report.  If it was jointly written, every individual student should turn in a copy.


  • To set the context and begin exploring the meaning of “biological race/ethnicity”, read the article “Does Race Exist” from the Scientific American. We will have a discussion of this article during the week of November 17-19.  To prepare for this discussion submit in your “Assignment Blog” the answers to the questionnaire associated with the article. (See the “Exploring Ancestry” lab folder in “Course Documents”)


  • You will need to research more about genomic genealogy, haplotyping and genetic ancestry analysis. Start early to allow time to discuss with instructors any questions you may run into.



Grading Criterion

You will be graded on several facets. In order of importance,

  1. Feasibility of the methodology and your ability to explain it.
  2. Significance of results from such a methodology.  That is to say, how accurate and precise do the results inform the client about their ancestry. (This may be more about your ability to explain and interpret the results then the methods themselves – so be sure to understand your own methods).
  3. Grammar, organization and readability of the report.