"Half of your DNA is determined by your mother’s side, and half is by your father. So, say if you seem to look exactly like your mother and had gotten all phenotypes from her, perhaps some DNA that codes for your body and how your organs run was copied from your father’s genetic makeup."
So close but yet so far. This quote was taken from an essay written by a high school student for the National DNA Day Essay Contest. It reflects just one of the many misconceptions students have in the field of genetics.
In 2006, the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG; www.ashg.org) began an essay contest for high school students in celebration of DNA Day—an event designed to enhance outreach in schools regarding genetics education. Initially, the contest was designed to encourage students to think seriously about the important implications of human genetics research. Three years and over 3,000 essays later, we have gotten much more than we bargained for.
As our judges began to read essays in detail, it was impossible not to notice the breadth and depth of misinformation and basic misunderstanding. While it was clear that students were being taught the rudimentary scientific concepts of genetics, it was also obvious that many students were not able to translate those concepts into understanding genetics’ impact on health or disease.
In an age where information is at our fingertips with the speed of an Internet connection acting as the rate-limiting step to content retrieval, we were hoping to see that students were becoming increasingly empowered to take on the science, technology, engineering, and mathematical challenges of the future.
If the 3,000 essays we have read to date are a reasonable measure of students’ preparedness to think critically and analytically, then it is clear that as a scientific community we have a lot of work to do. For those teaching at the undergraduate level, the students writing these essays will soon be in your lecture hall.
We systematically reviewed 500 essays from the first two contests (2006 and 2007) for misconceptions and examples of misinformation. Approximately one-half had at least one error, and 20% had more than one. Students often failed to understand the limits to science—crossing the line between science and science fiction.