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Genetics tough topic to teach, but fun to learn at Scott Township Library

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By David Paulk
Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics, would have been proud of a small group of children at the Scott Township Library.

They tackled genetics head on, as participants in a week-long “Science in the Summer” program sponsored by GlaxoSmithKline earlier this month.

For Julia Teufel, 7, of Mt. Lebanon, the main message was clear.

“The mom may have one of the cells that the grandma had, and then maybe one that her dad had,” Teufel said.

She was referring to the DNA that makes up all living organisms.

Before the program started, the children had to pronounce deoxyribonucleic acid. Not an easy feat for a 7-year-old.

Michaela Williams, a staff educator with the Carnegie Science Center, explained genetics to the second- through sixth-graders. She used tools, including a version of the Punnett Square, a method that scientists use to categorize genes.

In her demonstration, gingerbread men and colored pom-poms took on the likenesses of parents and genetic traits. Williams then had the children mix and match the genes. The result was a visual of how genetic traits pass down from parents to offspring.

Children left the program with a favorite project in mind, such as a trait bracelet. Williams told them to pick a bead that corresponds with a certain trait, and place it on a bracelet.

“I liked making the trait bracelets,” said Evelyn Roberts, 9. “Mine says ‘I can't roll my tongue, I'm lefthanded, and I have brown eyes.'”

Williams said science “can be a very daunting and overwhelming. Our biggest thing is making it relatable, and always asking open-ended questions that make them think.”

Williams said genetics is a tough topic to teach, but said it relates to everyday life.

“I don't want kids to think, ‘This is some crazy unattainable equation I don't understand,'” Williams said. “Genetics and deoxyribonucleic acid sound scary. But that's how my hair grows, and determines my eye color.”

Sherry Small, youth services manager with the library, said there is plenty of interest in science in the community.

David Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5804 or

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