NSW Premier’s Teacher Scholarship Study Tour: Washington #3

“The Genographic Project is an ambitious attempt to answer fundamental questions about where we originated and how we came to populate the Earth. Through your participation, you can play an active role in this historic endeavour.”

The National Geographic Society is headquartered in Washington. The Society believes in the power of science, exploration and storytelling to change the world and its stated purpose is to inspire, illuminate and teach. National Geographic has always used photographs and words to this end brilliantly. This is the most venerable of organisations, established in 1888, and it felt special to be here.


flickr photo shared by Darcy Moore under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-SA ) license


flickr photo shared by Darcy Moore under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-SA ) license 

With all this in mind, it was great to have a meeting scheduled at National Geographic HQ with Dr Miguel D. Vilar* (Manager for Science and Exploration) who is in charge of The Genographic Project. We have discussed educational perspectives about this important, long-running and well-known project at some length via Skype and face-to-face and there are genuinely exciting opportunities for students and teachers to be developed. He continues to be very generous with his time and towards my enthusiasms.


flickr photo shared by Darcy Moore under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-SA ) license

You may know that for over a decade National Geographic has encouraged participation, as citizen scientists, in their Genographic Project. This project is anonymous, non-medical, and nonprofit, and all results are placed in the public domain following scientific peer publication. To be explicit:

“With a simple and painless cheek swab, you submit a sample of your DNA to our lab. We then run a comprehensive analysis to identify thousands of genetic markers on your mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down each generation from mother to child, to reveal your direct maternal deep ancestry. In the case of men, we will also examine markers on the Y chromosome, which is passed down from father to son, to reveal your direct paternal deep ancestry. In addition, for all participants, we analyse a collection of more than 700,000 other ancestry-informative markers from across your entire genome to reveal the regional affiliations of your ancestry, offering insights into your ancestors who are not on a direct maternal or paternal line.”


flickr photo shared by Darcy Moore under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-SA ) license

It is clear that the Genographic Project can potentially become a transformational citizen science opportunity for schools and students around the world. I would like to see many more students  aged 13-25 access the project and, on Miguel’s invitation, made a brief wish list of ideas from and educator’s POV (in no order of particular importance) especially about the website:

  • if educators could log into a portal at the site which allowed them to upload student names, email addresses and confirm parental agreement would be much better than the current emailing system for schools to access the project
  • an improved online payment system for educators/students with international currencies in mind would also be great
  • it would be great for the price to be reduced for students. One way to do this is to minimise packaging and offer bulk discounts to systems.
  • more interactivity generally at the site
  • activities for students (perhaps partly created/shared/submitted by educators)
  • imagine if all the data for a class group could be looked at simultaneously at the website (i.e. all students see their common route(s) out of Africa by haplogroup and see where each headed off in a different directions). This should allow them to see each individual’s ancestral route visually. My class did this with each of us looking at our own websites (it was a great lesson but clunky). The following screenshot will give you the idea – just imagine clusters of names moving with each arrow).

Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 7.19.29 AM

As regular readers of this blog know, I use the Genographic Project as a teaching tool in the context of delivering Big History. A partnership between National Geographic the Big History Institute just makes brilliant sense from this educator’s POV to ensure more students have a quality, personalised learning experience.

The good news is that Miguel will work with one of our Big History classes after they have had their data returned from National Geographic by allowing them access to the DNA Analysis Repository (DAR). Into the future we may trial new website features as they become available for students and educators. I also believe that working with the Genographic Project will become more affordable for schools.

Thanks Miguel! I believe this to a brilliant opportunity for educators and the project to engage more students in their learning as citizen scientists.

*BTW Miguel’s PhD is in genetics (molecular anthropology).

“Skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.” Wayne Gretzky

Dr Eric D. Green is Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute in Washington. This is a very senior leadership position and I sensed Eric feels privileged to have had such a front row seat watching the development of this most exciting, transformational branch of human knowledge. I asked him what’s changed since he wrote this plan back in 2011. He responded with many points but the general theme was that research and interest in genomics has grown exponentially, especially the technological capacity and innovation. The field is moving incredibly quickly; much more so than envisaged when formulating the plan.

This is particularly a challenge for educationalists at all levels and society in general. The general public is beginning to understand the potential of the knowledge gleaned from our genome could save their lives. We all need to learn more and grapple effectively with ethical, practical, legislative and technological challenges.

Eric emphasises the necessity of interdisciplinary teams in research and development; in fact, it is all so complex there’s no way it can be done without gathering expertise working together cooperatively. By extension, this is what is needed in education. It is obvious. School structures are still preventing this from happening (that last point was more Darcy than Eric but he nodded in agreement). I will go on to say that Eric’s commentary just makes me more determined to keep pushing the notion that cross-curricular planning and flexible structures that are are needed; not just syllabus documents that intimate this. Technology is essential as is personalising student pathways. High quality and high equity are key ideals to keep in mind.

In our conversation, I mentioned that my ideas were changing and developing since this study tour commenced, especially in regards to students talking a more active role in actually analysing data they collect using new and emerging technologies. When I mentioned what I’d learnt about mobile DNA sequencers, Eric stood up and and left the room returning with a MinION a few moments later. I should have taken a photo. We discussed this (chocolate bar, and I mean small chocolate bar-sized) technology and Dr Green employed the famous Gretzky quote above (well not so much used in Australia but we know it) in reference to thinking about using the mobile sequencers for citizen science in Australian classrooms. Educators and systems need to stop playing catch-up and skate to where the puck will be (as challenging as that may seem). We can do that in NSW, especially as expertise and advice is so close at hand.

Dr Carla Easter is the Chief, Education and Community Involvement Officer for the National Human Genome Research Institute. I was deeply impressed with Carla who is enormously friendly, organised and very, very professionally helpful. Her assembled team – Jeff Witherly, Christina Daulton, Belen Hurle,  Beth Tuck and  Faye Brown  – showed me what it is they do to generate quality educational opportunities (and provided a tonne of resources).

DNA Day, which falls on the 25th April, is a particularly interesting initiative and one that may resonate with Australia educators, especially due to the memorability of the date. I really enjoyed one initiative held on that day – Harry Potter and the Genetics of Wizarding – thinking that Dr Eric Spana had a fantastic hook to engage students (you should watch him reeling in the fish).

The NHGRI has developed some genuinely wonderful resources for the general public and school. For example, Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code is the website that supports the travelling exhibition (in partnership with the Smithsonian). You really need to explore how cleverly designed and comprehensive a resource this site is for students and teachers. I particularly like how the metalanguage of genetics is deeply embedded in the learning. The analysis of aDNA (ancient DNA) is truly fascinating and this timeline at the site shows the development of this new area of research into our human origins. Every week we seem to find out more about our human origins and one of the challenges, of keeping such a site current, is certainly being met.

Thank you Carla for organising such an informative and professionally rewarding day at the NHGRI. Your team were all so passionate and on “the ball” (the social media engaement ideas were great) and I will definitely take up your and Dr Green’s offer to work with Australian students and teachers into the future. Much appreciated.

BTW Carla, I finished the book and it is brilliant, important and readable.


flickr photo shared by Darcy Moore under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-SA ) license

Dr. Briana Pobiner has the best job in the world (as far as I am concerned) and I know she thinks this too. She is a Research Scientist and Museum Educator working with the Human Origins program and also with Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. I love that her own research is focused on “paleodiet”—the evolution of human diet – with a focus on meat-eating and she gets out into the field, usually in Kenya. You can read an article, The First Butchers, recently published by Dr Pobiner.


flickr photo shared by Darcy Moore under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-SA ) license 

Briana has been integrally involved for the last decade in the Hall of Human Origins. It is a wonderfully curated space. The imagination, in concert with evidence, that artist John Gurche brings to the exhibit something special. I noted in a meeting that I attended with Briana that the museum has hundreds and hundreds of volunteers, many of them students. Made a memo to self to see if the Australian Museum In Sydney has a similar program of volunteerism and how it links to citizen science opportunities.


flickr photo shared by Darcy Moore under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-SA ) license

Brian Schilder is an intern whose research focuses on the evolution of the human brain and cognition. He does much outreach to secondary schools and today I had the privilege of seeing him in action at the Smithsonian as part of the Human Origins, “Scientist is In” program. His ‘cart’ engaged students and members of the public in thinking about our genes. Brian is further developing his questioning but the whole process of working out what it is we know about the development of humans, chimpanzees and gorillas is a whole lot of fun. He has skulls and balloons that represent developing brains; what’s not to love?


flickr photo shared by Darcy Moore under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-SA ) license

While chatting I realised that Brian is one of Professor Bernard Wood‘s students here in Washington and, funnily enough, I will attend his seminar in Wollongong on Thursday when I catch up with Professor Bert Roberts about my study tour. Six degree and all that…

Download (PDF, 295KB)

Next stop: San Francisco where I am looking forward to discussing the updates to Adobe’s mobile apps with their Education team. Adobe Spark may prove to be one of the best tools a young citizen science has for representing their work in the field and I keep thinking about the success of National Geographic in achieving their goals, set all those years ago, by choosing the right words and pictures.

Featured image: Flickr photo by Darcy Moore https://flickr.com/photos/darcymoore/26948715611 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

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1 Comment

  1. Andrew FitzSimons:

    marvellous account of a professional educator doing his utmost to learn.

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