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Intentionality in the Biology Classroom

Intentionality in the Biology Classroom
Mary Frances Hanover, Upper School Science Faculty

Biology is defined as the science of life and living organisms. The definition sounds fairly straightforward, but as science and technology delve further into understanding what makes us…well, us…concepts become more complicated.

Traditional biology curricula teach students a broad range of topics, from bacteria to blue whales and what makes them tick. Unfortunately, what is often overlooked is helping students navigate societally debated issues. This is particularly true for subjects found at the intersection of biology and identity — specifically, race as a social construct and the non-binary nature of biological sex. Linking identity to biological concepts allows students to formulate their own positions while also advancing their critical-thinking, decision-making, argumentative, and scientific literacy skills. In addition, introducing and exploring students’ perceptions of the relationship between biology and identity can help them negate and combat misinformation. 

How do we do this? 
  • Teach students that biological traits are not inherently good or bad. Some traits can merely provide an advantage to an organism in certain environments and that all humans are very closely related and share most traits. 
  • Although race has played a prominent role in the cultural human experience, we can use research and data to explain why there is no race in biology. Focus on the phenomenon that skin color variation is related to the global distribution of UV intensity and the need for our skin to absorb some UV to produce vitamin D.
  • Instruct that all people living today are one biological species and that over time, geography and environment influence the genetic structure of human populations through natural selection. 
  • Create a gender inclusive classroom by teaching students about the processes involved in human reproductive development, which will help them understand the biology of sex determination and development in humans. Highlight the complexity of genetic sex determination and expose students to data that challenges the notion of binary “male” and “female” bodies.

When we intentionally teach about the intersection of biology and identity, we help students to better understand themselves, biology and society. We can help students develop empathy toward diverse identities and perspectives and validate the complexity of the human experience.