The Prisoner of Azkaban, Warner Bros/J. K. Rowling

Here's how to teach kids about genetics using Harry Potter

Start them young.

FIONA MACDONALD
19 MAY 2016
 

We all know science is complex, filled with big words and complicated ideas. But it's also the best tool we have for understanding - and advancing - the world around us, so it's important to get kids excited about it from a young age.

To help you out with that, a researcher has just shared the ultimate life pro tip for getting kids to understand genetics - one of the most notoriously tricky but relevant fields out there. The secret? Talk to them about Harry Potter.

 

Seriously, the J. K. Rowling series isn't just insanely popular with, well, everyone, it turns out it's also a fantastic talking point for some of the most complex ideas in modern genetics, according to Jon Roberts, a genetic counsellor at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and King's College London in the UK.

"As a genetic counsellor one of the most difficult questions I faced in clinic was from parents asking: 'How do we talk about the genetic condition in our family with our children?'" Roberts explains over at the blog GenomEthics

His advice is aimed at the parents of kids with genetic conditions, who obviously have some big, scary discussions with their children ahead of them. But it's also a goldmine for anyone who wants to get young people interested in science.

So how exactly does a conversation about Quidditch and Voldemort turn into a lesson on DNA? In the blog, Roberts focusses on two important topics: inheritance, and "feeling different".

Both of these topics might seem simple to us, but they can be challenging for a child to understand with no prior understanding of genomes, chromosomes, or X-linked traits.

Luckily, the Harry Potter books are rife with examples of inheritance you can work with instead. For example, in J. K. Rowling's world, magical parents are likely to have magical children, but that's not always the case - just like with recessive conditions such as cystic fibrosis, magic can be passsed down to kids without either parent having it.

 

"We see this with Hermione who has non-magical (muggle) parents," says Roberts. "There are other examples of inheritance in the books. Hagrid is so big because his mother was a giant, and Harry Potter is said to look exactly like his father, except that he has his mother’s eyes."

And when it comes to what those inherited traits mean, the books are great because they're filled with positive examples of people being 'abnormal'.

"One of the challenges with genetic conditions is that they can make someone feel different," said Roberts. "Medical language does not always help. We talk about 'mutations' and try to find out if genetic variants are 'pathogenic' or not."

Another way to frame it without all the jargon, he suggests, is to talk about how Harry is different from the rest of his friends, and how his lightning-shaped scar is physical mark of pain that's happening on the inside.

Or the way Lupin is discriminated against because he's a werewolf, but most of the time, he looks just like everyone else. Both of those characters have their own struggles - but they're also loved and are the heroes in the books.

Of course, having a chat about Harry Potter isn't going to turn your kid into Craig Venter overnight. But it's a pretty ingenious way to get a new generation inspired and talking about science and genetics from an early age - whether or not it directly affects them.

And if the kids of the future aren't that into Rowling? You can improvise, says Roberts:

"I have used Harry Potter as an example partly because if think it is a rich source of powerful characters and imagery, but also because it is popular and as such children are likely to bring their own knowledge and passion to the conversation. I think if children are allowed to bring their own opinions and ideas and have these respected, this allows for the conversation to flow and communication to be facilitated." 

Solid advice for any muggles.

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