Biology Lessons of the Holocaust

  by  |  March 9th, 2009  |  Published in All, Featured

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A newly launched curriculum integrating study of the Holocaust with the science of DNA is a great free gift for teachers who believe in cross-curricular instruction but have few resources for practicing it.

• It’s a hands-on genetics lesson with a high-interest, practical, cutting-edge application,
DNA forensics.

• It’s a history lesson that’s unfolding today as the search goes on for mass burial sites of victims of the "Holocaust by Bullets."

• And with genocide, Holocaust deniers and anti semitism far from extinct, it’s a reminder that the most effective weapon against hatred is education.

The DNA Shoah Project (see video near the bottom of this page of ScienCentral’s initial report from
November 2006), based at Arizona Research Laboratories, is collecting and preserving DNA samples from living Holocaust survivors– most of whom are in their 80s and 90s– to make it possible to identify victims’ remains, which continue to be discovered in Europe.

But the project’s mission includes education. It launched the new curriculum in the Tucson public school district last year, and it is now available as a free download that any teacher can use.

Also on ScienCentral

According to Barbara Fransway, who developed the curriculum as biotechnology education outreach coordinator for DNA Shoah, it begins with a video of survivor testimony. Students construct a family tree of the survivor based on dates, ages and relationships provided in the testimony. Then the science concepts of inheritance and DNA are introduced, and students ultimately get a hands-on exercise in DNA forensics by using actual human DNA data to reconstruct the genetic profile of an unknown person. The lessons are currently aimed at high school students and adult learners, but a less rigorous version for middle school students is now in the works.

Fransway points out that with survivors’ numbers dwindling, it’s not only their DNA but also their testimony that’s a precious resource for the future.

"I think students today… think of [the Holocaust] as an old event that isn’t relevant today," she says. "But there is a lot going on in the world where we can use the lessons of past genocide to link to modern conflicts… By engaging with a science lesson, it can help lift the whole process of not forgetting.

"Matching broken families won’t be the happy result everybody gets," Fransway says of the project. "But we can offer this as something we’ve produced… as an immediate deliverable that benefits the whole community."

The project’s founder, Syd Mandelbaum, whose parents are both Holocaust survivors, says the DNA Shoah database has now reached over 1000 samples.

Mandelbaum acknowledges that its first "match" may be a long way off, and a long shot, but as he puts it, "Without a database there is no hope of finding matches," he says. "With the database, there is hope."

Mandelbaum, a former geneticist turned philanthropist, founded DNA Shoah with the University of Arizona’s Michael Hammer after new techniques were developed to extract DNA from bones, as well as new profiling and matching software were designed to identify victims of
9-11, and victims of Hurricane Katrina and the Asian tsunami.

[If you cannot see the flash video below, you can click here for a high quality mp4 video.]

Interviewees: Lena Mandelbaum, Holocaust Survivor; Michael Hammer, University of Arizona; Syd Mandelbaum, DNA Shoah Project
Produced by Joyce Gramza– Edited by James Eagan
Copyright © ScienCentral, Inc

Elsewhere on the Web:

"Holocaust by Bullets: The Forgotten Story,"
by Father Patrick Desbois

"UA genomics lab tackles Holocaust puzzle" from Arizona Daily Star

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