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Genomics education begins with a classroom of educators

The NHGRI Short Course in Genomics brings the latest genomics science to the classroom.

Samantha Agoos, who teaches honors genetics and biology at Denver East High School in Denver, believes she is doing a disservice to her students if she is not up to date on her subject matter. At Bethesda-Chevy Chase High in Maryland, a science teacher named Justine Lassar wants to teach biology lessons that are rooted in real, cutting-edge science.

But for genomics, that's a tall order. Genomics — the study of all DNA in organisms — is one of the fastest moving subjects in science. There are not many current genomics education resources available to teachers like Agoos and Lassar.

The National Human Genome Research Institute's (NHGRI) annual Short Course in Genomics is one of the few places providing such a resource tailored to educators. The Short Course is a unique summer event that brings together science, technology, engineering and math educators and NHGRI researchers to discuss what's new in genomics.


Educators Chanda Jefferson and Kim Vague explain the benefits of attending the Short Course and their goals of sharing those benefits with their respective communities. Credit: Ernesto Del Aguila III, NHGRI.


Agoos attended the 2019 session and Lassar attended the 2020 session virtually due to COVID-19. In July 2020, 35 educators, with backgrounds ranging from middle school, high school, community college and tribal colleges, logged into the virtual Short Course to learn about the newest results and topical concepts in genomics.

Each year, research brings forth new findings that cause us to revise our understanding of human biology. This volume of genetic information can have direct implications for the practice of healthcare. At the same time, individuals have more access to more medical information from products such as direct-to-consumer DNA testing kits, which affect our understanding of ancestry and identity. But while students are eager to learn about genomics, textbooks on the subject often remain years behind in describing the recent developments in this fast-paced science.

For educators such as Agoos, this is a problem. She believes that it is an integral part of her job to impart students with an authentic culture of science.

NHGRI created the Short Course in Genomics in 2003 to better understand the needs of educators, provide resources that met those needs and help them keep up with the constant advances in genomics. Coincidentally, this was also the same year that researchers completed the Human Genome Project.

"The ethos behind the Short Course is to democratize science and science education," said Christina Daulton, education outreach specialist at NHGRI and co-coordinator of the course. "The event offers teachers an opportunity to expand their professional development and bring updated educational resources on genomics back to their classrooms."

Daulton and the other Short Course coordinators believe that students should have access to groundbreaking and exciting scientific news in classrooms in addition to primary science content. By striking such a balance, students spark their scientific curiosity and diversify the future scientific workforce.

"The power of education is intricately linked with who has access," said Belen Hurle, Ph.D., another NHGRI education outreach specialist and co-coordinator of the course. "We want to give resources to educators who may lack sufficient resources.”

The power of education is intricately linked with who has access. We want to give resources to educators who may lack sufficient resources.

The course has served educators from 29 states and two U.S. territories. Educators who apply to attend the five-day course are more likely to teach students underrepresented in science, including American Indian, Alaska Native, Hispanic or Latinx, and Black or African American students.

During the course, teachers work together to develop interactive curricula and receive lectures on cutting-edge science from NHGRI and other National Institutes of Health (NIH) researchers, clinicians and staff. The course also highlights numerous genetics and genomics topics, including genome sequencing, CRISPR and other gene-editing methods, the human microbiome, and ethical and societal issues in genomics research.

The course has evolved over the years, and the most recent version began in 2015. It has gained popularity during this time, amassing approximately 120 attendees as of 2020. The event usually takes place on the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland, but it will be offered virtually in 2021.

Lassar praised the virtual course, stating that a lot of effort was put into making the virtual course as interactive as possible. 

"For the first time ever, some speakers recorded their lectures ahead of time, so we could spend our time with them discussing their work and careers," Lassar said. "Even though we missed out on the casual interactions of an in-person experience, we were able to have rewarding discussions with scientists."

Professional development for teachers remains a reliable way for them to learn and apply new knowledge and skills to their job. New participants, Short Course alumni and NHGRI scientists consistently collaborate as long-term partnerships.

Over the years, previous Short Course attendees have built a committed alumni community. The group consists of over a hundred teachers spread across the country who actively impart groundbreaking genomics news to students of all backgrounds and ages.

Efforts like the Short Course showcase a rising interest in creating equity and diversifying the science workforce, which is an NHGRI-wide priority. Although focused on genetics and genomics, the Short Course framework is easily adaptable to develop curricula in other rapidly growing science and technology fields.

“The Short Course is vital to paving a path for the future of science education in the U.S., multiple classrooms at a time,” said Carla Easter, Ph.D., chief of the education and community involvement branch at NHGRI. “The teachers who take the course can then spread the knowledge to others. This sets the stage for a new generation of to-be scientists who will have an impact on and improve our efforts to cure diseases, improve human health and benefit humanity.”

Learn more and apply for the 2021 NHGRI Short Course in Genomics

Last updated: February 17, 2021