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My significant other is forever telling me that Facebook is a total time-waster. Sometimes I do tend to agree – but also, one can Find Out Stuff! Like the study I’ve just heard about via Science Alert, on how children get information about genetics and DNA – things we might regard as being in the ‘too hard’ basket & so best left for senior high school students to grapple with. That grappling begins in year 11, when one of the NCEA Level 1 Science standards asks that students be able to “demonstrate understanding of biological ideas relating to genetic variation”.

Is that too late? Jenny Donovan and Grady Venville suggest that it is, arguing that with the rapid growth of knowledge in and applications of molecular biology,

[citizens] of the future will be called upon to make more decisions, from personal to political, regarding the impact of genetics on society. ‘Designer babies’; gene therapy; genetic modification; cloning, and the potential access to and use of personal genetic information are all complex and multifactorial issues. All raise ethical and scientific dilemmas.

They give the example of jury trials, where jurors may hear quite complex information about DNA and be asked to consider this in coming to a verdict, and note that people may have acquired a range of misconceptions around DNA from sources such as the popular program CSI and its various spin-offs.

Children, for example, have a lot of opportunity to hear about genes, DNA, & their uses well before we start formally teaching these concepts at school. Donovan and Venville already knew (from their own previous research) that by the end of their primary schooling many students were already developing misconceptions about genetics; for example, the idea that ‘genes and DNA are two totally separate entities.’ This time, they wanted to examine the impact of the mass media on children’s conceptions (& misconceptions) around this subject. The misconceptions part is particularly important because misconceptions, once formed, can be extremely persistent – affecting learning into the tertiary years.

Using a combination of interviews and questionnaires about media use, the researchers found that their subjects (children aged 10-12) spent around 5 hours a day using various media (TV, radio, print media, movies, & the internet), with most of that being watching television. This included crime shows, and the children felt that they gained most of their ‘knowledge’ of genetics from TV. Donovan & Venville chose to question children from this age group because, with falling numbers of Australian students taking science subjects in upper secondary school, ‘exposure to genetics may be their sole opportunity to develop scientific literacy in this field’ – where ‘scientific literacy’ encompasses literacy both within and about science.

So, what did they find out?

Most children (89%) knew [about] DNA, 60% knew [about] genes, and more was known about uses of DNA outside the body such as crime solving or resolving family relationships than about its biological nature or function. Half believed DNA is only in blood and body parts used for forensics.

Very few – only 6% – knew that DNA and genes were structurally related. Around 50% of the children surveyed felt that DNA & genes are found in only some tissues & organs. (I was half expecting them to say that DNA is found only in genetically-modified organisms – with GMOs in and out of the news, it’s odd that this didn’t come up.) And 80% of them felt that TV was ‘the most frequent source of information about genetics (with teachers confirming that the subject hadn’t been taught at school). As a result of these findings, Donovan & Venville argue very strongly that instruction in genetics should take place much earlier in students’ time in school, noting that other researchers suggest that

giving students opportunities to revisit science ideas and build deeper understanding over time, enables them to grasp and apply concepts that typically are not fully understood until several years later… [and that] students need to be exposed to background knowledge from early ages in order for them to make sense of what they absorb from the world around them.

So, if kids are going to watch programs like NCIS, CSI, and Bones on a regular basis, then maybe early teaching around genetics concepts could use

lively discussions around what they have seen and heard about genetics in the mass media [as this] may ultimately help children to make informed decisions in their future lives.

An interesting suggestion – and one which reinforces yet again how important proper resourcing and support of science teaching are, if we are to develop real literacy in and about science.

J.Donovan & G.Venville (2012) Blood and bones: the influence of the mass media on Australian primary school children’s understandings of genes and DNA. Science & Education (published online 23 June 2012, doi: 10.1007/s11191-012-9491-3