Pilot study at Leeds in “what if?” or counterfactual history of science

The study forms the basis for a project that has received $1.2 million from the National Science Foundation in the US.

Gregory Radick, Professor of History and Philosophy of Science, is Co-Principal Investigator (PI) with Dr Brian Donovan (PI, Biological Sciences Curriculum Study) and Dr Michelle Smith (PI, Cornell University).

Traditionally, teaching in genetics starts with the famous pea-crossing experiments of Gregor Mendel. Mendel deliberately worked with plants bred to show simple traits unaffected by context, which creates a risk that students come away with an exaggerated notion of genes as determinist “super causes.”

W F R Weldon was an important critic in this debate, who argued the problem with organising knowledge of heredity around Mendelian concepts marginalised context and all the variability it brings.

The study is in collaboration with genetics instructors at colleges and universities across the US and will evaluate different ways of helping students understand that the effects of genes depend on other factors, notably genetic background and wider environment.

Professor Radick said: “We’re especially thrilled by the response from genetics teachers, which suggests that, if the new curriculum holds up under further testing, it will fill a real need.”

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