High school is a time for many to search for identity through friends, sports and extracurricular activities. But for 1,000 Chicago Public Schools students, the answer to the age-old question “Who am I?” is found in a cotton swab.
This swab and subsequent analysis will allow students at five Chicago schools to be the first in the U.S. to trace their ancestors’ migrational history using a global research program’s DNA study.
The initiative, launched this year at Prosser Career Academy north of Austin combines research material from National Geographic’s Genographic project with a special program called Along the Silk Road.
“I’ve never thought about where I’m from or where my ancestors came from,” said Diamond Howard, a sophomore at Prosser, 2148 N. Long. “Some of my classmates are nervous about the results, but now that I have the opportunity, I’m real excited about finding out my roots.”
In each of the five participating schools, 150 students will use kits and the subsequent results to discover the path their ancestors made through travel, war and conquest.
Every student’s lineage will begin in Africa, where the origins of mankind have been traced, but 60,000 years of migration patterns has the immense potential of pointing out that one person’s distant relative is in fact sitting just across the room.
“Through this, I’ve learned that even though we are all different in race, the way we view life or whatever else, we’re all connected and come from the same original point,” said Jovany Galarza, who was part of the European History class that heard the first lesson in January.
Spencer Wells, National Geographic’s explorer-in-residence and director of the Genographic Project, said the history behind the blood running through one’s veins should be both of universal interest and carry special significance in the classroom.
“We’re always trying to teach people about their ancestors, but it’s best to catch people while they are young and before they get jaded by whatever else,” said Wells, who launched the initiative in 2001 and now has 205,000 global members.
The other four schools in the project are Lindblom Math & Science Academy on the South Side, Lincoln Park High and Walter Payton College Prep on the North Side and Thomas Kelly High on the Southwest Side.
Of the 1,000 participants, 250 will come from each school’s twin overseas, through the Chicago Sister Cities International Program. The program will allow local students to expand their comparison of common human threads. All 10 schools will be given the necessary kits and lesson plans, including interactive maps and video.
The program stems from Silk Road Chicago, the collaborative effort led by renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma to use local organizations and schools to explore the artistic legacy of the Silk Road, a major trade route between Asia and Europe.
Teacher Brian McKay, who participated in the first lesson, believes the material will bring a new perspective on learning to his students and grant them a lasting piece of knowledge.
“They now realize that the world is not only a big place, but also a small one,” McKay said. “With this study, the students are really pushed to explore their minds and now they can see that history is not just a thing of the past, but that they are part of history and its evolution.”