What do test tubes have to do with social studies? A whole lot, as Anthony Gaskins’ 7th grade social studies class discovered. Together the class embarked on an experiment that revealed the connection between science and history, and shed light on the complex topic of race.
The project stemmed from discussions about human migration patterns. The class learned that scientists can use DNA to trace migration routes and the origins of modern human populations. But instead of just talking about this topic with his students, Anthony decided to show them. Anthony teamed up with Theo Tupaz, 6th grade science teacher, to craft a lesson on DNA. With Theo’s guidance, students swabbed their cheeks for cells, and after blending a concoction of soap and Gatorade in a test tube to separate and color the cells, they were able to actually see physical strands of their own DNA. This collaborative lesson took an abstract scientific concept and made it tangible. By looking at their own DNA up close, students felt connected like never before, giving way for deeper discussion.
As Theo explained in class, DNA is responsible for what we look like. All of our visible physical traits are called phenotypic traits. Students explored the data that DNA holds, comparing traits like hair and eye color to one another, noting similarities and differences. Then, Calhouners replicated the exercise at home with family members, creating phenotypic trees that showed which traits were shared among relatives. Students soon discovered that while they could link many of their physical traits to DNA, they could not link one of the most prevalent and significant identifiers we use—race. As Anthony explained to his class, humans don't have any genetic traits that are connected to race. DNA only tells us where our ancestors come from. Race, as students learned, is nothing more than a concept that was invented at the turn of the nineteenth century, one that has had a profound impact.
Students grappled with the fact that categories of race, while not based in science, have nonetheless shaped history. “History can be used to educate, but it can also be used to manipulate,” says Anthony. One result of the creation of racial categories was the emergence of stereotypes, a focus of study for Anthony’s class. Students delved deep into the history of negative stereotypes of First Nations peoples and how these ideas are perpetuated to this day.
As a result of their studies, students began to think critically about how cultural biases have played out in their own lives. Seventh graders began to question the names of certain sports teams and Halloween costumes, while some students made even more personal connections. In a written reflection, one student shared that they stopped playing the game “cowboys and Indians” as a result of thoughtful class work. Now, the class is hard at work creating their own documentary films aimed at educating others about these harmful stereotypes.
By combining their areas of expertise, Anthony and Theos crafted a lesson that led to an eye-opening experience for seventh graders. This interdisciplinary project allowed students to connect personally to their work and inspired them to lean into difficult conversations. By exploring a difficult topic with a new perspective, students felt inspired to question the status quo and to make positive changes for the future.