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Book Review: The Usborne Introduction to Genes and DNA

8 February 2010
By Ata Anane
Ata Adusei, BSc (Hons), LLM (Medical Law/Ethics), PGCE (Secondary Science, Sept., 2009 - June, 2010)
Appeared in BioNews 545

The Usborne Introduction to Genes and DNA

By Anna Claybourne

Published by Usborne Publishing

ISBN-10: 0746077483, ISBN-13: 978-0746077481

Buy this book from Amazon UK

'The Usborne Introduction to Genes and DNA' by Anna Claybourne


The media is filled with coverage of genes and genetics, ranging from new clinical developments to genetic advancements. But few biology textbooks/booklets offer a way of simplifying the topic to pupils. This is one of the advantages of this introductory book. With its simple use of language, the author - Anna Claybourne - provides a tool for engaging pupils who might otherwise be less interested in science. For example, the book introduces the reader to a simple definition of 'genes', 'chromosomes' and 'DNA'. More detailed explanations of keywords are offered in the glossary.

However, a danger of simplifying keyword definitions is over-simplificating, thereby creating misconceptions. One such example is the definition of a cell - 'a self-contained unit, protected by a skin called the cell membrane' (p. 8). The definition is not wrong by itself, but a pupil might think cells being surrounded by skin was akin to the appearance of their skin. Perhaps the definition would have been better if 'skin' was replaced by 'layer or cover' (or other synonyms).

It felt to me that the book was geared towards promoting the benefits of gene science, rather than its dangers. The drawbacks to gene science were left for the latter sections of the book and generalised, non-scientific comments were offered as counter-arguments to the scientific justifications for gene science. For example, the chapter entitled 'Gene science today' (p. 28-9) delivers the scientific background to genome mapping, backed up by several social reasons for DNA testing and genetic engineering. However, little detail is given about the various ethical debates (aside from 'useful inventions' and 'playing God'). Similarly, the author could have given teachers and pupils more information about the controversy around gene patents after the chapter covering the race to map the human genome (p.31).

I came to the conclusion that the book is most suitable for individual pupils, not a whole class. This is because the booklet offers pupils the opportunity to delve deeper into the topics discussed in class - to learn more about the applications of gene science (with photographs) and to see simpler definitions of keywords.

If used in lessons, the teacher would have to ensure that only relevant sections are selected for use. This is because chapters don't follow on from each other. A chapter about 'Where are genes?' is followed by one on 'Chromosomes', followed by another on 'The gene code', and so on. Moreover, although the design of pages is essential for engaging pupils' attention, I felt the use of many different page colours was overbearing. It offers little time for readers to get used to the layout and design of a particular section. This might also make the book inappropriate for certain special educational needs (SEN) pupils, for example, those on the autistic spectrum.

The best aspects of the book are the extra resources available via the website and the use of real-life photographs wherever possible. These additional resources help teachers explain topics and also allow pupils to look into areas discussed in the book in detail. The worst bit about the book is its lack of coherence. The book begins with the science of genes and DNA, progresses through the history of genetics and current gene science and finally moves to the ethical issues associated with gene science. However, within the chapters covering the background science of genes/DNA, it felt that the sections did not match up properly.

Overall, I believe this book meets the requirements of the science curriculum at key stage four (students aged 14-16) and deals with the applications and implications of science appropriately for this age group. There may also be scope to extend the use of this book to pupils studying the top end of the key stage three science curriculum (students aged 11-14). Hence, I believe this book is most suitable for pupils aged 13 to 16 years.


Buy The Usborne Introduction to Genes and DNA from Amazon UK.

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