mind on fire

“The greatest history book ever written is the one hidden in our DNA.”  

                                                                                                  Dr Spencer Wells

Recently I presented DNA: Personalising the Curriculum at the WHAT IFEmbracing complexity through curriculum conference which has reinvigorated my belief that we need to make some profoundly important changes to our approach to educating young people about their “personal data”. What follows is an abbreviated version of the report and recommendations published last year on completion of my Premier’s Adobe Information and Communication Technologies ScholarshipI am publishing it here at my blog in an effort to further generate discussion generate forward momentum in regards to some of the recommendations. 

What do you think about the recommendations?

pts1 (1 of 1)

My study tour focused on the potential of new and emerging technologies – such as non-medical DNA analysis – to be employed ethically in an effort to genuinely personalise learning for students. Increasingly, it is desirable to have an interdisciplinary approach to quality teaching and learning across the curriculum – already encouraged by the cross-curriculum priorities and general capabilities in the Year 7-10 syllabuses – that can be shared by teachers across the curriculum and state.

Educational institutions visited included:

City College of New York

American Museum of Natural History

Spitzer Hall of Human Origins

Columbia University

New York Genome Centre

Poughkeepsie Day School

Oceanside High School

DNA Learning Centre, Cold Spring Harbor

New York Botanical Gardens

National Geographic HQ

Smithsonian Institution

National Museum of Natural History

American History Museum


USA Holocaust Memorial Museum

National Human Genome Research Institute

Adobe – San Francisco

Adobe – Sydney

Macquarie University

The Big History Institute

University of Wollongong

SERAP, Department of Education

Key contacts/experts consulted included:

 Prof. Mike Hickerson

Tyler Joseph

Mitch Bickman

Todd Nusson

Jason Manning

Josie Holford

Brent Boscarino

Jonathan Heiles

Mary Ellen Kenny

Laura Graceffa

Victoria Mayes

Shirley Rinaldi

Amanda McBrien

Dr Sophie Zaaijer on behalf of

Dr Yaniv Erlich

Katie Barry

Prof. Alan Finkel*

Prof. Allan Cooper*

Dr James Boye

Dr Briana Pobiner

Dr Brian Schilder

Dr Bennet Greenspan*

Dr Miguel Vilar

Prof. Eric D Green

Dr Carla Easter

Tacy Trowbridge

Johnson Fung

Terry Fortescue

Andrew McKenna

Tracy Sullivan

Prof. Peter Hiscock*

Prof. Bert Roberts

Thomas Sutikna

Prof. Bernard A Wood

Allan Booth

Dr Robert Stevens

Kim McKay*

Prof. Graham Durant*

* Skype, phone and/or email

More detail than what this report contains can be found at the scholarship related posts.

Significant learning

My original conception of citizen science in high schools has developed and expanded through dialogue, observation and reading on this study tour and beliefs about the central importance of ICT, interdisciplinary learning and collaboration have been further strengthened and confirmed.

It is clear that the Department of Education (DoE) can further foster innovative learning opportunities with the support of strategic, long-term partnerships with institutions and a variety of other organisations in both Australia and the United States of America. Visits to National Geographic Headquarters and the National Human Genome Research Institute in Washington were particularly fruitful.

The Genographic Project has been a successful citizen science project sponsored by National Geographic for more than a decade. Focused on population genetics the project maps the ancient migratory patterns of our earliest ancestors by collecting DNA via cheeks swabs contributed by volunteers who pay for the Geno 2.0 kit. There is an education/student discount but the kit is still too expensive for wider use by schools. *

The following ideas have been discussed with Miguel Vilar (The Genographic Project) and Kim McKay (Director of the Australian Museum and collaborator on the early Genographic Project) and ideally could be supported more formally by DoE. In short:

  • Geno 2.0 kit prices for students/schools could be significantly reduced by minimising packaging and offering bulk discounts to large education systems such as the NSW Department of Education
  • educators should be able to log into a portal at the Genographic site allowing student names (as appropriate) and email addresses to be uploaded as well as confirming parental agreement which 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 needs to be developed
  • more interactivity generally at the site is needed including activities for students. For example, with some minor tweaking at the backend of the site class groups could see their ancestral route(s) out of Africa by haplogroup. This should allow them to see each individual’s ancestral route visually in the context of their class group.

* Students at Dapto High participated in the project via funding from Professor Bert Roberts and The Centre for Archaeological Science at the University of Wollongong and a second trial at a significantly reduced price has been completed.

Geno 2 (1 of 1)


This study tour has extended my understanding of the potential of citizen science and DNA analysis. It was amazing to discover that DNA sequencing is increasingly mobile with tools like the MinION mobile DNA sequencer that is being trialed in a high school in New York City by Dr Sophie Zaaijer (New York Genome Centre): https://nanoporetech.com/products-services/minion-mki. Dr Zaaijer has agreed to share her findings and is happy to assist in any ways she can that will benefit Australian students and teachers.

Into the future students and teachers could be using mobile DNA sequencers in the classroom to analyse data. Students increasingly are able to do increasingly sophisticated analysis as technology reduces in price (Moore’s Law). DoE needs to prepare now to ensure students and teachers can genuinely participate in STEM and avoid faux programs that lack authenticity. This is an area for urgent further investigation.

When discussing the potential of this mobile DNA sequencer Professor Eric Green, (Director, National Human Genome Research Institute) showed me his MinION and how small this device is; we discussed the potential for classrooms. This discussion ranged over many topics including the importance of students learning about the health implications of what analysis of their genome revealed. Professor Green was in favour of students learning about this by using personal and family data. He would have not had the same position when commencing his current job but advances in the field have been so swift and wide-reaching that our education systems must adapt.

“Darcy, you are skating to where the puck is going to be…”    Professor Eric D Green

Dr. Eric D. Green, Director of NHGRI.
Dr. Eric D. Green, Director of NHGRI.

Recent journal articles considering the ethics of having students participate in analyzing health data at American Ivy League universities are worth considering (see Participatory Genomic Testing as an Educational Experience in bibliography).

The National Human Genome Research Institute funds and operates some impressive educational websites. Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code: https://unlockinglifescode.org/ and the National DNA Day (25th April) website are particularly impressive with quality teaching and learning materials: https://www.genome.gov/10506367/national-dna-day/. Dr Carla Easter, the Chief of the Education and Community Involvement Branch, is enthusiastic about supporting Australian schools. For example, making DNA Day an international event is currently being considered.

Observing and teaching Big History classes at Oceanside High School emphasised how fundamental Bring Your Device (BYOD) is for contemporary education. Students all accessed the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) and used Twitter and Youtube in class. The metalanguage of learning, cooperation and connectivity is always fundamentally important in classrooms. You will notice in the photo below that the #hashtag for the class and course is on the board along with the key ‘claim testers’ (intuition, logic, evidence and authority) that assist students with learning to be conscious of epistemology. 


One example of the challenges for an interdisciplinary course like Big History is that teachers are required to teach a subject syllabus which is limited in scope. This school taught Big History as part of the World History subject which is externally examined thus limiting what was possible in class.

“From its inception, a PDS education was founded on relationships and learning by doing; it valued play as creative cognitive growth and working together as a means of effective progress and the promotion of democratic values. It was about openness to opportunity and growth rather than right answers and closed minds…”

Poughkeepsie Day School (PDS) has an enviable educational ethos and citizen science was on display during my visit. In fact, it was almost incidental to discover a teacher heading out of the school with students to continue a very authentic and long-running project on aquatic ecology. This same teacher had been involved with very practical lessons all day, including dissections and outdoor lab work. The teacher was accomplished in the field of citizen science and the level of motivation his very practical, real lessons encouraged was writ large and very observable. (see bibliography).

It is clear citizen science has the potential to engage but the teacher emphasised it cannot be “just another lesson keeping students busy; there must be an authentic purpose”. Discussions with those lucky enough to learn at PDS revealed the very high level of engagement, collaboration and sense of purpose the school was able to instill in staff and students. Values clearly informed practice.


 Findings and further recommendations: 

  1. Citizen science is an opportunity that needs to be supported by many players including government, educational authorities, institutions, NGOs and business to help teachers provide authentic, cutting-edge opportunities for their students. It would be wise for DoE ensure a very senior officer is given authority to work on partnerships and ensures dissemination of the ever-growing opportunities that exist for teachers to provide students with avenues to participate in citizen science.
  2. Opportunities exist to partner with National Geographic to provide inexpensive non-medical DNA analysis into classrooms via citizen science projects like The Genographic Project.
  3. Students and teachers mostly have smartphones every day at school and most can provide a tablet or laptop if permitted. These are essential tools for accessing experts, citizen science apps and to document/share learning. BYOD is fundamental to contemporary schooling and needs to be practically supported. Social media is essential for connecting with experts and sharing. It is recommended that the current blocking/filtering of Twitter and Youtube prevents easy access to MOOCs and experts is reviewed and ceased as a matter of urgency.
  4. Emerging technologies like mobile DNA sequencing – if supported – provide exciting opportunities for students and teachers in classroom settings as “Moore’s Law” takes effect. A trial of MinIon Mobile DNA Sequencers to support citizen science is recommended.
  5. Tools and technologies come and go but Adobe Spark mobile apps are likely to engage students in telling their citizen science stories and sharing them effectively. They can now login into these free apps using their NSW school email accounts, Facebook, Google or their Adobe account. This should be widely advertised and supported.
  6. The National Human Genome Research Institute supports National DNA Day (25th April) with educational resources and publicity. The DoE should consider the support that has been offered from this institute to promote the day in Australia.
  7. The focus on non-medical DNA analysis in education should be broadened to considering aspects of what medical analysis can offer. This is a vexed issue but healthcare in the 21st century will increasingly use complex data – our own and our family’s – to assist with the best outcomes for wellbeing. There is a golden opportunity to engage students with understanding this data. DoE should ‘skate to where the puck is going to be’ by further investigating that practical and ethical issues of using medical DNA analysis in schooling.

This study tour has been an invaluable professional experience as I crave intellectual stimulation and new experiences that can be shared with colleagues, parents and students. Some of the people I met were very generous with their time and expertise and in some cases have become friends who will visit me in Australia as we share great enthusiasm for similar areas of research and learning.


Adobe.  Adobe spark – communicate with impact. Retrieved July 9, 2016, from https://spark.adobe.com/

Arney, Kat. Herding Hemingway’s Cats. Bloomsbury Sigma. 2016

Christian, David, Cynthia Stokes Brown, and Craig Benjamin. Big History – Between Nothing and Everything. McGraw Hill Education. 2013

Darcy Moore’s Blog. NSW Premier’s Teacher Scholarship Study Tour: New York #1. 2016. Retrieved July 09, 2016, from https://www.darcymoore.net/

Darcy Moore’s Blog. NSW Premier’s Teacher Scholarship Study Tour: New York #2. 2016. Retrieved July 09, 2016, from https://www.darcymoore.net/

Darcy Moore’s Blog. NSW Premier’s Teacher Scholarship Study Tour: Washington #3. 2016. Retrieved July 09, 2016, from https://www.darcymoore.net/

Darcy Moore’s Blog. NSW Premier’s Teacher Scholarship Study Tour: San Francisco #4. 2016. Retrieved July 09, 2016, from https://www.darcymoore.net/

Garber, Kathryn B., Katherine M. Hyland, and Shoumita Dasgupta. Participatory Genomic Testing as an Educational Experience. Trends in Genetics 32.6 (2016): 317-320.

Micklos, David A, Greg A Freyer, and David A Crotty. DNA Science. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2003.

Micklos, David A, Uwe Hilgert, and Bruce Nash. Genome Science. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2013.

Moore, Darcy. Building Australia Through Citizen Science. Australian Council for Educational Leaders e-Teaching. November 2015 (40): Retrieved12 July 2016, from https://www.acel.org.au/acel/ACEL_docs/Publications/e-Teaching%202015/e-Teaching%202015%20(40).pdf 

MinION Mk 1B. Retrieved July 12, 2016, from https://nanoporetech.com/products-services/minion-mki  

Mukherjee, Siddhartha. The Gene – An Intimate History. The Bodley Head Ltd, 2016.

National Human Genome Research Institute. National DNA Day. Retrieved July 12, 2016, from https://www.genome.gov/10506367/national-dna-day/

National Human Genome Research Institute. Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code. Retrieved July 09, 2016, from https://unlockinglifescode.org/

Nelson, Alondra. The Social Life of DNA. Beacon Press, 2016.

Poughkeepsie Day School. About PDS. Retrieved July 09, 2016, from http://poughkeepsieday.org/about-pds/

Poughkeepsie Day School. Brent Boscarino aquatic ecology research with students – PDS high school. 2015. Web. 11 July 2016, from https://sites.google.com/a/poughkeepsieday.org/pds-high-school/faculty–noteworthy-news/brent-boscarino-aquatic-ecology-research-with-students

Smithsonian Institution. National Museum of Natural History NMNH. Retrieved July 9, 2016, from http://naturalhistory.si.edu/  

The Big History Project: 13.8 Billion Years of History. Retrieved July 09, 2016, from https://school.bighistoryproject.com/

The Genographic Project by National Geographic – Human Migration, Population Genetics. Retrieved July 09, 2016, from https://genographic.nationalgeographic.com/

Wells, Spencer. Deep Ancestry. National Geographic, 2006.

Wells, Spencer. The Journey of Man. Princeton University Press, 2002.  

Zaaijer, Sophie. Cutting edge: Using mobile sequencers in an academic classroom. eLife 2016; 5:e14258. Retrieved July 12, 2016 

What do you think about the recommendations?



  1. […] Please read this for more background and recommendations. […]

    • Jen Smith

    • 6 years ago

    Well done. Fantastic effort on this write up and on your study tour.
    You are doing an important thing in educating our young people and other teachers and adults about the genome and the implications of this knowledge and where it is heading.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *