Genetic Phenotypes of the Superheroes

A lesson plan by Jerry Aissis, Providence, Rhode Island

Subject: Biology - Grade 7-9
Duration: One week

This unit was part of a project developed for the Rhode Island Teachers in Technology Program during the summer of 1998 and was one of the winners in a lesson plan contest sponsored by TeachersFirst in 2002. TeachersFirst editors have added technology options where appropriate.

Rationale Genetic diversity creates cultural differences that make our world unique. DNA is the material that genes are made of and this material is passed on from generation to generation. The environment and our genetic makeup interact to give us our phenotype. Students will develop skills working cooperatively to create a finished product to understand these concepts constructively, using computer skills and the World Wide Web.
Objectives Students will explain that genetic differences exist in all of us.
Students will demonstrate that diversity is what makes us unique as individuals.
Students will explain that phenotypes are the physical characteristics that we develop from our genotype (our genetic makeup) and that both the environment and our genotype interact to make us what we are.
Materials Internet access and drawing materials (paper, colored pencils, crayons, markers, and/or watercolors). Coins (pennies are fine).
Procedure Students use the Internet to locate Marvel Comic sites that give backgrounds and physical characteristics of the super-heroes. (Examples would include Wolverine, Cyclops, and Elektra to name a few). Working in groups of two, they must search for a male and female superhero and develop a list of physical traits and characteristics that these super-heroes have in common and also those unique to that individual. They then toss two coins to simulate a genetic cross: HH (the trait is dominant), HT (the trait is mixed but still dominant) TT (the trait is recessive) Tossing coins for as many different traits that they have listed, they generate a new list of physical features. Have them keep a spreadsheet of their coin flips and the results. using Excel or Google docs spreadsheets (reviewed here).

The challenge comes when students work together to draw a new superhero based upon the new set of traits. They can do this on paper or electronically, using drawing software or online drawing tools. The artwork created by the students can then be displayed in the room or shared on an interactive whiteboard or projector.

They make up new names for these super-heroes and these drawings can then be used with other drawings for even more genetic crosses. Students can also post them on the computer and collaborate with other schools doing the same unit. Posting (or embedding) the images to a wiki page (one per group) with explanations would allow all students to participate in the group projects.

They can develop contests for the wildest looking superhero. This type of activity reaches those students who like to doodle in class and can be used to combine those who are artistically inclined with the general student. There is no limit to this type of activity. This activity can help to establish that diversity makes our world unique.

Practical hints:

Since students may become very involved in the details of drawing, you may need to suggest specific benchmarks or tasks to be completed each day in order for student to be done within five classes.

Decide which tools you will permit students to use and which parts of the project you will require them to submit for credit (record of coin flips, documentation of traits, etc.). Share this as part of your instructions.

If you are going to share via a class wiki, create the pages in advance where you want each group to work.

Directions to the student: (copy/paste and amend as needed)
  1. Search the Internet for information on a Marvel Comic Super Hero of your choice.
  2. Develop a list of 20 to 25 physical traits (phenotype) that your character has which you can identify by physically looking at the character. Make this list in paper or in electronic form on your wiki page or online drawing tool.
  3. Print a copy of the character or share the URL of the page to share the information with the other person in your group.
  4. As you develop your list of physical traits, assign different letters of the alphabet for each trait. Include a key for these traits in your paper or electronic document. You may choose to use all capital letters. Another group of students will do the same but will choose lower case letters for their traits for their super character.
  5. Now have someone from each group toss a coin (use a penny). If the coin turns up head-head, the capital letter for the trait will dominate. If the coins turn up head-tail, the trait for the capital letter will still dominate. If the coin turns up tail-tail, the lower case letter trait will be the physical trait. This represents the recessive trait. Do this for all 25 traits. From your new list of traits, which will be a combination of the two super characters, make a drawing of your new super hero based upon the new traits. Make a new wiki page, paper drawing, or electronic drawing of the new superhero, annotating its features.
  6. You may want to post your drawings on the web and share them via a URL for other groups of students who are also doing this activity.

For extra credit: write a story line that goes along with your character. Create an environment (let your imagination go wild) for your super hero. Add these to your wiki page or other sharing method. Who knows, this could be the start of another comic book character. Superman, watch out!
Useful web tools Here are just some of the options for completing this project electronically:

online drawing tools:
Sketchfu reviewed here
ProjectDraw reviewed here
wiki tools:
PBworks, reviewed here
wikispaces, reviewed here

Create the story of the superhero as an online electronic book using a tool such as Bookemon, reviewed here.
Evaluation Create a rubric for your students, depending on the medium you choose to have them use to create, annotate, and explain their new superheroes. Consider having students rate each other's superheroes, as well. Find a quick rubric making tool here.

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