Students trace their own history through DNA

Students trace their own history through DNA

DANVILLE — Jasmin Grajales has wondered, upon occasion, whether she descended from an Aztec princess. Her mom told her that her grandparents immigrated to the United States from Mexico and her great-grandfather came from an Aztec tribe.

Joshua White's mom told him that he has a German, Japanese and Hawaiian heritage.

"Maybe one of my ancestors was a Samurai," said Joshua, who has strawberry-blond hair, blue eyes and is 5-foot-7 and growing. "That would be cool!"

Jasmin and Joshua are a couple of months away from discovering exactly who they are and where they came from. They and 20 other seventh-graders in the Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID, program at South View Middle School are tracing their DNA through the National Geographic's Genographic Project.

"AVID is giving them a future," teacher Amy Robinson said of the college-readiness program that targets first-generation college students. "This project will give them their history."

The scientific project uses cutting-edge genetic and computational technologies "to answer the fundamental questions about where we originated and how we came to populate the Earth." Since its launch in 2005, 609,030 people from 140 countries have participated.

Robinson has wanted to involve her students since attending a conference at the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta last November. Clark did it with his incoming fifth-graders, many of whom are minority and low-income.

"He said many of them only think (of their history) as far back as slavery," Robinson recalled. "But there were so many pretty awesome tribes from West Africa and Africa that these kids probably descended from. This gives them a heritage, culture and background they can take pride in."

Robinson was able to purchase 22 Geno 2.0 kits thanks to a Danville Public School Foundation grant funded through donations from the Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 157 and AT&T. The kits cost close to $3,300.

"This is what foundation is all about — supporting enhanced educational experiences for our students," said Bob Richard, the foundation's executive director. "It's new. It's creative. This is what the kids will remember about school."

The students collected their DNA samples on Friday. They unwrapped a swab that looked like a miniature toothbrush on a long stick, then scraped the inside of one cheek for 45 seconds. After securing the sample in a small vial, they repeated the exercise on the other side of their mouth.

"Scrape off those cells. That's where your DNA comes from," the teacher directed.

Robinson will ship the samples, encoded so that participants remain anonymous, to a laboratory where scientists will use advanced technology to examine a collection of nearly 150,000 DNA "markers" selected to provide ancestry-relevant information.

Scientists are using the information "to chart a more complete map of the early stages of human history by carefully comparing the DNA from world populations that have been genetically and geographically stable for hundreds or thousands of years."

When students receive their results in eight to 10 weeks, they will use it as the basis for several projects and lessons. In geography, they will choose a location in their DNA background and period of time when their ancestors would have been there. Then they will create a timeline covering a century and come up with 50 events that would have occurred.

"It's always been a struggle to get the kids interested in geography," Robinson said, adding the DNA project will give the lessons more relevance. "It will just give them a more personal connection. They should be able to connect it to, 'I had a great-, great-, great-grandparent in that situation.' Now, they look at those situations and think, 'This means what to me?'"

Students also will refer to the project when they read native folk tales in history and study genetics and DNA in science.

Jada Taylor said she's eager to see her results. "I think I came from Africa or somewhere," said Jada, who can trace her lineage back only to Chicago where she knows her parents and grandparents lived.

While Jasmin has always been curious about her ancestors' names, she said the project has gotten her thinking about them more including what they did and where they lived.

"I'd like to go there someday," she said of her earliest ancestors' home. "I think it would be interesting to step on the same land they were on."

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