ELSIconversations for Educators
Exploring Complexity in the Biology Classroom: Beyond Mendel: Leading with Complexity when Teaching Human Genetics

Presenters: Shawneequa Callier, JD, MA & Eimear Kenny, PhD

Moderator: Rob O'Malley, PhD


Date: May 11 2023 3-4 pm PT / 6-7 pm ET


Teaching Mendelian patterns of inheritance is a useful way to introduce basic genetic concepts in the classroom. However, this framework can be unhelpful or even misleading if students do not first appreciate that most, if not all, traits in living organisms result from interactions among genes, and between genes and their environments. Providing this full picture is particularly important in classroom discussions about human genetics. It is critical for instructors to avoid reinforcing or creating misconceptions about genetics and health. For example, the treatment of racial or ethnic group identity as representing discrete biological groups can hinder rather than advance impactful approaches for genomic medicine.


In this session, researchers shared insights to guide teaching about human genetics with a focus on complexity. Presenters discussed ways scientists are trying to uncover and quantify the contributions of many genetic loci to common diseases, limitations to this type of approach, and current understandings of how genetic and environmental factors interact to produce health outcomes. This session included examples of how even relatively simple, single-loci genetic variants (e.g., lactose tolerance, sickle cell anemia) can have a range of outcomes across diverse populations, a discussion of common frameworks used by geneticists (e.g., genome-wide association studies or polygenic risk scores) to link genetic variants with health outcomes, and an overview of how genetics intersects with social determinants of health.


Please find the transcript, additional resources, and the presenters' slide decks in the upper right hand corner of this page.


biology education