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Illinois Biology Teacher Wins AAAS Education Award for Real-Life Genetics Lessons

Who’s Your Daddy? is one of the most popular genetics lesson in Jason Crean’s high school biology classes. It’s a paper and pencil exercise that asks the students to determine the paternity of a dolphin calf based on DNA sequences. But the data come from a scientist studying dolphins in Florida’s Sarasota Bay, and Crean hopes the lesson will show how genetics can solve real-life problems.

Dolphins—and their daddies—are just some of the animals collected in Crean’s XY-ZOO, a unique teaching module that shows students how genetics can be a powerful tool for conservation. For his work on the XY-ZOO and his commitment to bringing real science and real scientists into the classroom, Crean is the 2010 winner of AAAS’s Leadership in Science Education Prize for High School Teachers.

Crean is a biology teacher at Lyons Township High School in LaGrange, Illinois. He created the lessons with geneticist Jean Dubach of the Chicago-area Brookfield Zoo, using information from ongoing zoological fieldwork. “We knew that most schools don’t have the money or resources or technology to do this type of lab work, and they probably never will,” Crean explained. “So we decided to use the actual data that scientists are generating.”

Along with chromosomes and pseudogenes, the students learn more about the scientists themselves, who work in Africa, Australia, South America, and the United States. “I thought it would be great to show the diverse community that engages in science every day,” said Crean.

Jason Crean

All of the lessons are available for free at the XY-ZOO web site, something that Crean considers a key accomplishment. “We offer the program for free because we know what the budgets are for teachers,” he said, “and we want everyone to be able to use it, and allow teachers to adapt it for their own students.”

The annual AAAS teaching prize of $1000, supported by an endowment established by AAAS member Dr. Edith D. Neimark, recognizes a high school teacher who has contributed significantly to the AAAS goal of advancing science education by developing an innovative and demonstrably effective classroom strategy, activity, or program. Now in its fourth year, the prize also includes travel expenses to give a presentation at the annual Shanghai International Forum on Science Literacy of Pre-college Students.

The judging panel for the award praised Crean’s creative lessons as a “unique lens through which students can see and experience vicariously the role of science in species conservation.” Some of Crean’s students went on to volunteer in the Brookfield Zoo genetics lab, although the volunteer program is now closed due to a lack of funding.

Real-world science. Students in Crean's 2009 biology class compare sets of monkey chromosomes in an XY-ZOO lab.
Photo courtesy of Jason Crean

“When giving talks to teachers, I always asked if anyone would like to help convert this real research data into classroom exercises. Jason Crean jumped at the opportunity,” said Dubach, Crean’s co-author on the module. “It was always my desire to share these amazing stories with students, so they will get excited about what we can learn.”

“High school science teachers, especially in biology, have a lot of content to teach in one school year,” said Marlene Hilkowitz, one of the award judges and a teacher for 30 years. “It is an unusual teacher like Jason who can find an interesting way to engage the students in real-world research studies, explore learning outside the classroom, appreciate the nature of science, and also learn about how a local science institution is making a contribution to worldwide science research.”

Crean teaches mostly freshmen and sophomores at Lyons Township, but he is also an adjunct professor at St. Xavier University in Chicago. He holds two degrees in biology, a Master’s degree in education, and a graduate certificate in zoo and aquarium science.

“Growing up, I really wanted to become a veterinarian,” Crean said, “but the further through my education I went, the more I wanted to share my love of biology with others. Now that I have taught biology for about 15 years, I have the best of both worlds.”

Former student Allison Kihn has fond memories of the XY-ZOO and the school zoology club founded by Crean. As a second year vet student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, she says she is “exactly where I want to be in life right now,” thanks in part to Crean’s encouragement.

“My time in the lab was truly treasured, and really gave me a grasp on genetics that has really helped me in the classroom and laboratory setting,” Kihn said. “I pretty much can thank Mr. Crean for single handedly helping me achieve my dream career.”

Crean also teaches graduate-level courses in the Brookfield Zoo’s education department, and he encourages high school teachers to seek out similar courses to sharpen their own science skills. “Zoos, museums, and other informal educational institutions offer a lot of very interesting, cutting-edge classes,” he said, “with research that is sometimes more recent than what you might get at a university.”

Crean, who also received a Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching this year, said he is “incredibly humbled” by the recognition for his teaching and the XY-ZOO curriculum. But the project is far from over. This fall, he and Dubach will add new lessons to the zoo module that will allow students to test the gender of sloths and tamandua (a species of anteater), analyze the fitness of lions, and delve into the population genetics of raccoons in the Midwestern United States.


Get more information on the AAAS Leadership in Science Education Prize for High School Teachers.

Read about the 2007, 2008, and 2009 prize winners.

Learn more about supporting AAAS programs and awards.


Becky Ham

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