Finding Your Roots Curriculum Receives $659,000 in Grants; PBS Series Returns in Jan.

The new curriculum is based on Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s popular PBS series.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. in 2012
Henry Louis Gates Jr. in 2012 Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

A new curriculum based on Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s popular PBS documentary series, Finding Your Roots, received two grants this week: one for $355,000 from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, to create Genetics and Genealogy Summer Camps for Middle School-Aged Youth; and one for $304,000 from the National Science Foundation to establish a college program, according to a news release.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., chairman of The Root and the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, will lead the curriculum working groups, along with Nina Jablonski, the Evan Pugh Professor of Anthropology at Pennsylvania State University.

The Finding Your Roots middle school project will focus on evolutionary biology and health lessons as well as provide hands-on activities for middle school students attending summer camps at Penn State, the University of South Carolina and the American Museum of Natural History in 2016 and 2017.

A team of educators will teach an introductory biology course focused on genetics and genealogy at several HBCUs. It will be led by Spelman College biologist Aditi Pai and conducted in association with Wallace Sharif of Morehouse College and Joseph Graves of North Carolina A&T.

The curricula come in response to the rising need in the U.S. to increase diversity within its workforce—chiefly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields—which is expected to grow rapidly over the next decade. African-American and Hispanic professionals make up only between 12 and 16 percent of the STEM workforce, with a declining percentage of underrepresented students pursuing STEM degrees, the release says, citing a February report in U.S. News & World Report.

“I conceived of this project after the first season of our PBS series aired in 2005, as I realized the impact that tracing one’s genealogy can have on the self-esteem of young people of color,” Gates explained in the news release. “As every amateur genealogist knows, reconstructing one’s ancestry is just another way of learning about yourself. Far too many of our children have had their passion for learning crushed in poor learning environments, both at home and in our schools. Learning the art and science of ancestry tracing through DNA and archival records can help to regenerate that passion for learning, because it is so personal, and besides, it is fun.”

The Finding Your Roots series, which was postponed after an episode omitted references to the slaveholding past of Ben Affleck’s ancestor at the actor’s request, will return for its third season on PBS on Jan. 5. The 10-part series will explore the family histories of 28 of today’s leading cultural, social and political leaders, including Julianne Moore, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Dustin Hoffman, Shonda Rhimes, Sen. John McCain and Norman Lear.