students learning their ancestral origins through interactive lab

Class Uses DNA Results to Learn Human Migration History

Go way back. Before Plymouth Rock and Columbus' voyage on the trade winds. And farther back than Hannibal's traverse of the Pyrenees and Alps.

During the fall semester, students in Scott Corbett's "Themes in World History" class learned where they came from, but not from the history books. The students' origins were revealed through their own DNA, which - in some cases - goes back nearly 50,000 years.

The unique class was as much a class in sociology, anthropology, and humanities as it was a history class. It exemplifies the interdisciplinary approach to learning that Cal State Channel Islands emphasizes and is becoming known for throughout the CSU system.

The odyssey began with the 40-member class selfselecting into four to six-member study groups, and voluntarily swabbing the inside of their cheek as part of a DNA kit purchased through the National Geographic Society. Cheek cell samples were then sent to a lab, processed, and near the end of the semester the results were confidentially made available to each student through a Web site.

The DNA test results were also shared with National Geographic and IBM's Genographic Project, which is a five year effort to collect tens of thousands of DNA samples from people around the world to learn more about the history of human migration.

The lesson, as the students realized on their last day of class, was not to learn the origins of their ancestors or paths they took to arrive in this region.

With their DNA results in-hand, Corbett had the students break from their self-selected groups and find their "relatives" - those who fell within similar sets of DNA.

Senior Lydia Rush was part of a larger self-selected group, but when she looked for other people in the class with the same DNA results, she found only one - junior Maria Ayala. The big picture showed that from Africa, both students' ancestors trod through northern Asia, bridged the Bering Strait, into North America and down to Central and South America. They also have ancestors who migrated to Australia and what is now the Republic of Indonesia.

With half-raised eyebrows Corbett asked Ayala and Rush the rhetorical question: "Did you recognize each other as relatives?" Both students smiled as they answered no, in unison.

After forming new groups based on the DNA results, Corbett asked why the students didn't choose their "relatives" when they formed groups during the second week of class. The answers echoed what a classmate had said earlier: they chose their groups based on similar tastes, interests and external indicators.

"So maybe over a long period of time....maybe what we think of as race is irrelevant," Corbett suggested.