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Lexington One Students Explore DNA, Family History at Genetics Camp

Students in Lexington School District One are proving you don’t need an academic degree or years of experience to study the complex science of genetics. Using common household ingredients and their own curiosity, a group of 25 middle schoolers recently participated in the first-of-its-kind “Find Your Roots” genetics and genealogy camp at Meadow Glen Middle School (MGMS).

The Center for Science Education at the University of South Carolina, along with researchers at Penn State University, received a grant to determine if a personalized approach to subjects like genetics and genealogy will foster a lasting connection between students and science.

One way this theory is being tested is through new interactive summer camps.

At MGMS, the group of rising seventh-graders squished and strained strawberries through a coffee filter to isolate DNA, went on a nature walk to find objects to observe under a microscope, and researched their family trees.

“It’s a good conversation maker,” student Kyle Berwaldt said. “Studying genetics shows your uniqueness.”

Cory Karl, a science teacher and coach at MGMS, also participated and was able to trace her family tree back multiple generations.

“It’s important for students to realize it’s OK to want to be educated in the summer,” she added.

Bert Ely, director of the Center for Science Education at USC, said administrators at Lexington District One were quick to open the doors of MGMS, making it easy for the university to partner with the local school for the camp.

“The facilities are great, and the district was very supportive,” he said.

Grant funding for the eight-day summer camp at the end of June was provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a nonprofit that’s worked 40 years to improve health and health care across the United States.

Ely observed how students reacted to the activities. Their feedback will be crucial in the development of the curriculum for camps across the country.

Several campers discovered something new about their family histories after getting DNA results back from 23andMe, a personal genetics company that allows people to look deeper into their ancestry and wellness.

Berwaldt said he’d always heard about his Italian heritage, but he was surprised to learn he’s only 11 percent Italian with higher percentages of Scandanavian and British ancestry. Similarly, fellow MGMS student Rebekah Young learned she has ancestors from the Sub-Saharan African region along with the Greek and Cherokee heritage she knew of already.

Other students focused on traits and family medical histories. MGMS student Andrew Unthank was relieved to see his DNA profile showed only a small chance of future baldness, while fellow student Catherine Paul said her results from 23andMe indicated she’s not likely to have a serious disease.

“I was interested to see how my genetics are affecting me today,” she said.

Karl believes the camp tapped into a key component of successful instruction: making the content relevant to students.

“Looking at their genes makes the connection personal,” she said.

The students agreed the chance to study genetics has made them even more excited to pursue science-related career fields such as veterinary science and health care. A few students will be selected by USC to take part in a long-term study about how the personalized approach to studying genealogy has shaped their interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and related careers.

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