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Science education partnership award (SEPA) project

Exhibit: "Your Genes & Your Choices"

Your Genes & Your Choices shows how social and genetic factors impact health. There are two versions of the exhibit: a traveling exhibit and a permanent exhibit. The permanent exhibit, originally displayed at the Hall of Health, is now at the Challenger Learning Center in Atwater, California. The traveling exhibit has six of the eight interactive activities. Currently at Global Health Odyssey, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, GA, it has also visited:

  • Explorit Science Center, Davis, CA
  • Health Awareness Center, CentraState Medical Center, Freehold, NJ
  • Adventure Science Center, Nashville, TN 

Your Genes & Your Choices has eight interactive stations, two in each of four topic areas:

Section 1: Our Genes Make Us the Same / Our Genes Make Us Different

This exhibit area introduces visitors to the concept that genes are what make us similar to each other and to other living things. At the same time, visitors learn that it is genetic variation in a relatively small number of our genes that makes us unique individuals. Key concepts include:

  • What genes are and what they do
  • How genetic traits are passed down from parents to children
  • The difference between dominant and recessive genes
  • All human beings have the same 30,000 genes; these genes are what make us human.
  • Variation in about 30 percent of our genes is what makes us the unique individuals that we are.
  • Genetic variation is distributed across all ethnic and racial groups.

Interactive Activities:
Flip Panels: This guessing game invites visitors to guess how many genes they have in common with other living things. The top panel of this flip panel features images of a variety of animals and plants—chimpanzee, fruit fly, banana plant, another human, etc. Information on the bottom panel tells them how many genes they have in common with that animal or plant. Visitors learn how similar their genetic make-up is to that of other living things.

Genetic Variation: Using a computer, visitors can enter data about themselves and their genetic traits (eye color, hair color, widow’s peak, hitchhiker’s thumb, rolling tongue, etc.) into a computer. The computer tabulates how many previous visitors have the same genetic traits as this particular visitor to reveal how our genetic variation makes each of us unique.

Section 2: There’s a Reason for Skin Color or We’re All from Africa

This exhibit area explores the origins of the human species in Africa and the evolution of skin color over time. Key concepts include:

  • Humans began in Africa as a single population. Tracing genetic markers can reveal human migration patterns over the last 200,000 years.
  • As humans spread across the world over thousands of years, they developed some characteristics distinctive to separate populations. One of these was skin color.
  • Skin color is an evolutionary response to solar radiation. In tropical latitudes, dark skin color evolved in response to intense solar radiation that can damage folic acid. In northern latitudes, lighter skin color evolved to increase Vitamin D production in the skin.
  • Today people of many skin colors can live in the same place safely, thanks to sunscreen and vitamin supplements.

Interactive Activities:
Human History (permanent exhibit only): A computer traces the movement of the human population out of Africa over the past 200,000 years, revealing how genetics can be used to trace human migration. The computer links to the existing interactive map available at

Jigsaw Puzzle: This jigsaw puzzle reveals the relationship between skin color and solar radiation. A large world map showing solar radiation throughout the world is displayed as a background image. On top of this image, visitors can put together puzzle pieces that reveal a world map featuring images of native populations from around the world. As visitors put together the puzzle, the relationship between skin color and solar radiation is revealed.

Section 3: Genetic Disease

This exhibit area explores the role of genes in causing disease and explains that some genetic diseases have clear evolutionary histories. Activities also explore the difference between genetic diseases and those caused by other factors, such as bacteria, viruses, or environmental conditions. Key concepts include:

  • Diseases are caused by a variety of factors.
  • Genetic diseases are caused by genetic mutations.
  • There are sometimes evolutionary reasons for genetic diseases (e.g., sickle cell anemia is caused by genetic changes that developed to protect people from malaria).

Interactive Activities:
Flip Panels: Visitors learn that diseases can be caused by a variety of factors from genetic mutation to viruses or bacteria to environmental causes and lifestyle choices. Flip panels present visitors with a variety of illnesses (the flu, Down Syndrome, heart disease, sickle cell anemia). The bottom panels reveal what the causes are for these various illnesses.

Examining Blood Cells (permanent exhibit only): Visitors look through a museum-style microscope to see the difference between a healthy red blood cell and a sickle cell.

Section 4: It’s Not Just Your Genes

Although we often blame our genes for health problems, a variety of other factors play a role as well. Social factors and lifestyle choices play a significant part. Here visitors learn about choices they can make to improve their overall health. Key concepts include:

  • Social status is an influential factor in human health. Individuals in lower socioeconomic groups may have higher stress and less access to healthcare, and they may live in worse environmental conditions.
  • There are things we can do in our life to reduce stress and take better care of ourselves to prevent illness.

Interactive Activities:
Pachinko Machine: This game reveals the relationship between lifestyle choices and genes in impacting a person’s health. The interactive makes use of a Pachinko machine, a Japanese invention that visualizes the probable outcome of a few decisions using small balls that fall through a system of paddles and pegs. Visitors affect the outcome by adjusting the position of a series of paddles. Each row of paddles is connected to a lever that has three positions. The three positions represent three different answers to a lifestyle question. For example, one question asks visitors about their diet. Visitors can position the lever to indicate that they eat a well-balanced diet, that they eat some junk food, or that they eat a lot of junk food. Each choice moves the position of the paddles accordingly. After the visitors position all of the paddles (representing diet, exercise, stress, and genetic propensity to heart disease), they release the small balls. The balls then fall through the pegs and align at the bottom in positions that represent the probability of developing heart disease based on the choices made. Depending on the combination of results, visitors will find out whether they are likely to have heart disease or not. Through this game, visitors learn that lifestyle choices can impact their health as much as their genes do.

Biofeedback: Through a biofeedback activity, visitors learn relaxation techniques that they can use to reduce their stress. Visitors place a hand on a metal sensor that measures skin conductivity. They are able to control lights and sound simply by relaxing.


Revised: Tuesday, March 27, 2012 3:33 PM

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