Developing an assessment to address undergraduate biology student understanding of genetics and race

Project: Research project

Project Details


This project aims to serve the national interest by investigating the relationship between knowledge of genetics and beliefs about race. It will produce a resource in undergraduate biology courses to assess this relationship. It is common for undergraduate students to think that socially defined human races are genetically distinct. Undergraduates also may overestimate the differences between socially defined racial groups and underestimate the differences within them. This can lead to challenges in understanding how the environment influences gene expression and how multiple genes can impact a single trait. The association of such ideas with the misconception that socially defined racial groups can be categorized based on genetics can result in racial bias. This project will result in a new assessment that combines a scale for beliefs about race and conceptual questions related to the biological facts concerning genetics and race. This assessment instrument will help undergraduate instructors determine if the way these topics are taught have an impact on students’ beliefs regarding race. Additionally, this instrument will be used in the development of genetics lessons that prevent the spread of misconceptions about human genetics and race.

The first goal of this project is to develop an instrument that includes both a test of content knowledge and a scale for beliefs related to racial essentialism that is applicable to students enrolled in introductory biology courses. Racial essentialism is the belief that socially defined racial groups are genetically distinct and natural. The project will include steps to collect evidence of construct validity, the internal structure, and of repeatability for this new combined instrument. This instrument will be widely usable to assess university instructors’ abilities to teach genetics as it relates to race and to measure the impact of the curricula on students’ beliefs related to genetic and racial essentialism. Additionally, the project will also test a model of how students’ race/ethnicity and their conceptual understanding of genetics and race impact their beliefs about genetic and racial essentialism. The second goal of the project is to design and pilot an intervention designed to help undergraduates learn scientifically accurate conceptions of multifactorial genetics and population thinking in the context of race. The piloting of the new instrument will take place on diverse campuses, including community colleges, Hispanic-serving institutions, and a research-intensive university, and hence has potential to reach a wide audience of practitioners. Project outcomes will be disseminated through various meetings and publications of interest to undergraduate biology instructors and science education researchers. The project intends to reduce the negative impacts (e.g., psychological threat, decreased persistence, loss of interest in a STEM career) that a traditional genetics curriculum can have on undergraduates from groups underrepresented in STEM. The NSF IUSE: EHR Program supports research and development projects to improve the effectiveness of STEM education for all students. Through the Engaged Student Learning track, the program supports the creation, exploration, and implementation of promising practices and tools.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Layman's description

The aim of this project is to explore introductory biology students' beliefs surrounding genetics and race. The end result will be an assessment that instructors can use to see if their methods of teaching genetics reinforce or combat inaccurate ideas about race. In addition, we will be testing a hypothesis that understanding certain genetics concepts is correlated with more accurate understandings of why race is not biological.
Effective start/end date1/15/2212/31/24


  • biology
  • student
  • race
  • genetics
  • essentialism
  • bias


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