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Bringing Genomics to High School Students: A Survival Guide

(This week DNA Science has a guest post from Sergio Pistoi, a science writer and molecular biologist from Italy.)

When I gave my first conference about genomics in a high school, I thought of what Jerry Seinfeld famously said about the fear of speaking in public: “Most people would be better off inside a casket than doing the eulogy at a funeral.”

(Dept. of Energy)
(Dept. of Energy)

I don’t have any fear of speaking in public- I am a professional science writer and a reasonably experienced presenter. However, the mission of getting a few hundred teenagers to drop their jaws at the marvels of DNA and –omics stuff made my self-confidence wobble for a moment. High school students are incredibly bright and curious — but an auditorium packed with them? Mmm, it can quickly turn into a distracting, noisy environment, in particular with an unprepared speaker. At least, that’s what I believed.

Today, after talking about genomics with 10,000 teenage students, I still think it’s not easy. But I learned how to make such events work most of the time. And I know they can be awfully rewarding, with the right approach and a good deal of planning.

My expertise with high schools was scant until 2012, when I published an Italian book about my experience with direct-to-consumer (DTC) genomics (I have a Ph.D. in molecular biology). The book spawned invitations to science festivals and other events populated with students. Their response was enthusiastic. That’s where I joined forces with a fellow science writer, Andrea Vico, to bring science directly into schools.

unspecifiedIn 2014, we created Geni a Bordo (Genes on Board), a format of interactive conferences and webinars aimed at high schools, and toured 13 Italian cities on a rented camper with it. We got funding from Farmindustria, a business association of pharmaceutical industries, so we could offer our conferences to selected schools for free. Following the success of the initiative, we did a second tour in 2015, also supported by Farmindustria.

Overall, our tours had an audience of 8,000 students and turned out to be the largest initiative of its kind in Europe. We still have many schools on the waiting list and are now looking for funding to bring it internationally.

During the process, I gathered many insights into how teenagers perceive genomics and even more into how to engage them in a science conference. Here are some thoughts and tricks that may be useful:

DNA is the perfect content
With DTC genomics, DNA is not a vague notion anymore. Now that everyone can explore their genome and talk about it, the opportunities to engage the public are infinite. We all have DNA, and we all have something to say about it. By just sharing some of my 23andme results, I could start chains of discussions about health, ancestry, identity, and about why I can drink more wine than you.

ATCG's Image with Group of PeopleYounger and adult audiences have different angles
The medical applications and the fear for privacy are the topics that emerge more frequently when I discuss genomics with adults. In my experience, younger people have different agendas. They tend to overlook the medical stuff and focus on discovery and the social aspects of genomics.

What do teenagers ask?
Genomic social networks, genetic determinism, ancestry, the genetics of homosexuality, DNA vs. racism, and genetic engineering are the most recurring topics that students bring up during our conferences. In general, they are into anything regarding the social implications of genomics. Questions about twins and genetic doppelgangers are also in the top ten: could this be related to the teenagers’ physiologic struggle for identity? Any expert hint is welcome.

Cultural references: watch the expiration date!
Knowing what your target reads, hears, and follows is a starting point for any communication strategy. With teenage audiences, it can be tricky because their references are probably different from yours and expire quickly. For example, references to the iconic movie GATTACA are ubiquitous in science talks, but most teenage students never heard of it– they weren’t even born when GATTACA came out in 1997. Other references are longer lasting. Snoop Dogg, for example, is still a rap idol among students: a video clip where he takes a DNA ancestry test always keeps them alert and triggers interesting discussions. Of course, I’m not suggesting that you should share a teenager’s preferences if you are an adult. But it’s essential to keep abreast of their cultural references and use them appropriately.

sergio 2Think multimedia
A multimedia presentation is way more teenage-friendly than a traditional slide format. Some familiarity with video tools is useful. I like to produce short clips and use them as a backbone for my conferences. The overall set-up depends on whether I present alone or with a colleague. However, I always take some time to prepare good videos and pictures.

Get the Tempo Right
The secret ingredient of any good presentation, rhythm, is a must when approaching a younger audience. Teenagers have an extraordinary ability to process information and react quickly; the idea is to keep in sync with their pace, taking time for discussion without becoming tedious. It’s good to package information into short bits, alternating video clips and talks, keeping introductions to a minimum and avoiding recaps. I usually break the ice with something that sets the tone and makes clear it’s not the typical science class.

Plan for feedback and you’ll get it
A vibrant discussion depends on your ability to get feedback and respond to it. Raising hands is impractical with large audiences. Also, many students are shy in front of their teachers and schoolmates.

We make extensive use of technology to get instant, anonymous feedback. Our stage gear includes a system that allows students to send us comments and questions directly from their smartphones. We frequently stop to address questions and use them to steer our presentation.

The response during the tour went beyond expectations: on average, half of the attending students wrote messages: summing up all our conferences, we received over 4,000 feedback messages! Caution: live feedback is not easy to manage and can backfire. Use it only if you are really an experienced speaker, or hire someone knowledgeable to manage it.

Genomics is cross-disciplinary
Contemporary genomics is relevant to a wide variety of subjects besides the obvious Biology, Chemistry, and Science classes. Deep ancestry has implications for History and Geography. The digitalization of chromosomes, genomics social networks, and genetic Big Data are relevant to Informatics. Digressions on DNA-art, genetic identity, and self-discovery invest Arts, Literature and Psychology.

Our conferences attracted many types of teachers and their classes. The pervasive influence of DNA technologies and the flourishing of consumer genetic services guarantee a growing and continued interest in the topic. The inclusive appeal of contemporary genomics is a hidden treasure yet to be discovered by educators and scientists.


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