Thursday, February 26, 2015

BYOD: Bring Your Own Device . . . to School

by Maria DiPasquale
Intern, Spring 2015

As someone who has only been out of high school for three years, I can attest to the fact that students get distracted by their smartphones. I remember all the old tricks: texting while your phone was in your bag, sending covert Snapchat pictures from under your desk, asking to go to the bathroom so you could use your phone. Now, some schools are bringing the smartphones out of hiding and into the open. Bring-your-own-device (BYOD) programs intend to use smart devices for their untapped educational value, while at the same time eliminating the distractions they can otherwise become in the classroom.

Smart devices can make students more attentive and eager to learn. The concept has been successfully implemented in Durham Public Schools (DPS) in North Carolina, which have dubbed the program Bring Your Device to School, or BYDS. Elizabeth Agoranos, a sixth grade language arts teacher who tested the program in her class, notes that “it makes their instruction more individualized and more student driven.” She also says her students were more focused and engaged, and when their once-banned smart devices became acceptable to use, they became less of a distraction. It also doesn’t hurt that some schools, including those in Durham, provide wireless connectivity that can limit student access, resulting in less time spent on non-educational functions.

Research shows that students already use their smart devices to learn at home. According to a 2012 study that was done for the Verizon Foundation by Teen Research Unlimited, 39 percent of middle school students used smartphones for homework, but only 6 percent of those students were allowed to use their smartphone during school hours. Teachers who want to change those rules are now making use of such devices in any number of ways, from having students search the internet for vocabulary words to using educational apps to presenting course content on a platform already familiar to students.

Another residual benefit of the program is that it frees up school-owned equipment for students who do not have smart devices. This has already proven to work in Durham. One of the schools’ technology facilitators, Laura Fogle, notes that the school already owns a large amount of technology, but nowhere close to a one-to-one ratio. “What this initiative will allow us to do, for all our students, is reduce that ratio so that there will be fewer students sharing the same devices,” she explains.

Schools like those in the DPS district are paving the way for widespread implementation as they overcome logistical issues like creating broadband networks for lots of students to connect to at once and making in-class (or, in the case of DPS, district-wide) rules that keep the devices from becoming distracting. Most schools first test the programs with a pilot class before moving to larger-scale implementation. Once the kinks are ironed out, all signs point toward the success of programs like BYDS. This approach can lead to effective learning that bridges students’ interest in technology and their education.

Did You Know?

The familiar Apple vs. Android debate extends beyond personal smartphone preferences among friends. As schools allocate part of their budgets toward smart devices, a discussion has evolved regarding which operating system (iOS, Android or otherwise) should be used for tablets in education. According to wireless network and security company SecurEdge Networks, each type of device has its own educational benefits and drawbacks. While iPads tend to be more user-friendly and have access to more apps that are updated more frequently, they usually have a higher price tag than their Android-powered competitors. However, both operating system types get good security ratings, which is also very important for education.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Second Chance: Bringing a Sense of Touch to Prosthetics

by Dakota Damschroder
Intern, Spring 2015

As with many important innovations, the use of prosthetics did not begin as recently as people might assume. In fact, the world’s oldest prosthesis dates all the way back to at least 710 BCE, when the Egyptian daughter of a priest lost her right toe, possibly due to gangrene, and was in need of a replacement. It was well crafted from wood and leather, and had holes for lacings to attach directly to the foot or fasten to a sandal. Needless to say, prosthetic technology has come a long way since then.

When most people think of prosthetics, they likely think of a hunk of plastic that’s basically lifeless, much like the Egyptian toe—and they wouldn’t be wrong, especially as that’s what many prosthetics are, particularly for upper-limb amputees. As a result, up to half of these amputees choose not to wear a prosthetic device because the replacement limb is too uncomfortable and doesn’t bring back what many amputees really desire: sensation.

However, at Case Western Reserve University, Dustin Tyler is seeking to change that. As the research director and associate professor of biomedical engineering, he and his team developed a hand system that allowed their two amputee testers to feel normal hand sensations. The prosthetics are so sensitive, in fact, that the amputees could even identify textures and pick up objects as small as grapes and cherries with the correct amount of force, so as not to squish them. The hand system also caused phantom limb pain to essentially disappear, an unexpected but not at all unwelcome side effect.

How is this possible? Tyler and his team used ideas similar to those behind the treatment known as targeted muscle reinnervation (TMR), developed by scientists at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC). This treatment involves a surgery that takes the nerves that once controlled the amputated limb and reroutes them to another place, such as the chest, so that when an amputee thinks about moving their arm, the signals move the chest muscles instead. Electrodes attached to the chest register this movement and move the prosthetic.

Pretty cool, right? While TMR focuses on the nerves used for movement, Tyler’s team worked with the nerves used for sensation—by connecting them to a machine through electrodes to establish the signals necessary for the brain to process sensory feedback. Unfortunately, at the moment, Tyler’s system requires the electrodes to penetrate the skin, which can easily cause an infection. However, Tyler hopes to develop a fully implanted system that will allow the wearer to connect to the prosthetic arm via Bluetooth, which takes the prosthesis to a whole new level by using a wireless interface.

Several states away, Leslie Baugh made history at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) by becoming “the first bilateral shoulder-level amputee to wear and simultaneously control” the lab’s Modular Prosthetic Limbs (MPLs). Baugh also underwent TMR surgery. After only ten days of training, Baugh could move small objects like cups, demonstrating the intuitive nature of the control.

Both types of prosthetic devices are still in the testing phase but might be on the market in as little as ten years. Perhaps they could even be combined into a single device that enables both movement and sensation. Either way, it’s starting to look like a brighter future is finally here for amputees.

Did You Know?

If amputees aren’t completely satisfied with the current options for prosthetics, they do have another option: transplant surgery. Although it is an experimental procedure for many hospitals, there’s been success with hand, arm and even leg transplantation. As with organ transplants, the patient receives the limb from a deceased donor and must commit to extensive rehabilitation and a lifetime of taking immunosuppressive medications that prevent rejection. However, it can be worth it. Brendan Marrocco, an injured soldier who received a double-arm transplant in 2013, reported movement in his arms only a month after the surgery.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Moochie Kalala: Person, Place or Thing?

by Eileen Neary
Assistant Project Manager

There’s a new show out there bringing some logical calm to the chaotic frenzy that is often children’s programming. The show is called Moochie Kalala Detectives Club. And its name, purposely silly, certainly isn’t the only unique thing about it.

The show is live action, set in Chicago and aims to bring STEM to elementary school students. Centered on the characters of Grandpa, his grandchildren and their father, the name of the show comes from a fictional character in Grandpa’s stories. In these tall tales, a girl named Moochie Kalala battles a Tyrannosaurus rex, gets into a contest with a chimpanzee and a gorilla, makes a deal with a space dragon and is rescued by a singing whale, among other adventures. Moochie Kalala travels time and has a wide range of roles, from Stone Age jokester to famous pop star.

Grandpa is played by Tim Kazurinsky, who is known for appearing on Saturday Night Live in the 1980s. The grandchildren, Mandy and Kyle—played by twelve-year-old Evelyn Alumbreros and eight-year-old Gregory Vasquez Alexander—are determined to discover if there is any truth behind Grandpa’s wild stories. They interview local scientists with the help of Dad, played by Michael Vincent Carrera.

The first episode premiered on PBS affiliate WTTW on January 18, 2015. Six episodes will air in the Chicago area, and from there, production team Dreaming Tree Films hopes for Detectives Club to be nationally broadcasted on other PBS stations, though the show is also currently available for purchase online.

In the season opener, Mandy and Kyle head to the Adler Planetarium to interview an astrophysicist. Throughout the six-episode season, they also explore the Museum of Science and Industry, the Lincoln Park Zoo, the Field Museum, the Robie House and the Shedd Aquarium. They meet with a physicist, primatologist, paleontologist, architect and marine animal trainer. Each episode begins with a story from Grandpa, is followed by a visit and interview, and finishes with classroom experiments for teachers to conduct with their own students.

The director of Dreaming Tree Films, Kelli Feigley, wanted to create a program that showed real kids conducting investigations to encourage children like her own—three girls ages ten and under—to become interested in STEM topics. Detectives Club is also intended to serve as a sort of vicarious visit to Chicago museums and cultural centers for children who may not have the opportunity to go themselves. This spring, the production company will also be visiting local Chicago schools to hand out free Detectives Club DVDs and engage students in science events based on the show.

A writer for the Chicago Tribune says that children’s programming is often “too frantic, jammed with characters and action and overexcited speech patterns,” “too medicinal” or forces the children who are acting “to be capital-A Adorable.” He feels Detectives Club doesn’t fall into any of these categories, and that it “strikes a nice balance between energy and information, between delivering facts and having fun with its storytelling.”

Kazurinsky backs up this analysis when he asserts, “There are certain teachers who make school interesting and a lot who don’t. The thing I like about this series is it makes learning way more interesting.”

Did You Know?

The same month that Detectives Club aired, Peggy Charren, a famed advocate for children’s educational programming, passed away. In the 1960s, while raising two children of her own, she began an organization called Action for Children’s Television (ACT). The group’s actions earned a meeting with Michael Dann, senior vice president for programming at CBS. Encouraged by ACT, Dann quit CBS, took a massive pay cut and helped pave the way for a brand-new show: Sesame Street.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Hope Beyond the Gap: Parental Support and the Vocabulary of Our Children

by Annemarie Tompsen
Intern, Spring 2015

As a writing center associate, I’ve tutored college students from all walks of life. Socioeconomic status (SES) can vary greatly from student to student, and no student shares the same academic needs with another. Tutoring needs depend on their writing and reading level. Students can experience huge differences in reading and writing skill levels, and this gap starts when they are only children. Many individuals agree that literacy plays a large part in the evolution of a child’s educational growth, and it starts in the home.

But what is the ideal age for a child to most effectively learn? Anne Fernald, an American psychologist and Stanford University professor, specializes in child language development. In a 2013 study, she found that the foundation for language development is extremely important before age two. This time is crucial for children’s language processing speed. The more words they hear and vocabulary associations they are able to make, the higher their vocabulary growth is likely to evolve over the years that follow. The study also revealed that, when they are only two years old, children from disadvantaged SES groups are already approximately six months behind their higher SES counterparts.

But are these findings really the final say?

Fernald spoke recently at a TEDx event on this topic. She discusses the connection between SES and language processing that research has found, specifically from her study at Stanford. Fernald acknowledges this data but also enlightens the audience with the true importance of child literacy: parental support. Children, no matter where they stand in the spectrum of SES, will benefit from learning language both directly and indirectly in the home. This, as Fernald points out, is the key to increasing a child’s mental processing speed.

Children require an increased amount of natural conversation in the home. This includes reading books, asking questions and indentifying items during playtime. According to Dr. David Dickinson, this approach of teaching in the home will help to increase a child’s mental processing speed for vocabulary. Investing early in a child’s life can help to shape their academic future.

Inadequate opportunities for early learning can happen to any child despite their family’s standing in the economy. As Fernald points out in her TEDx presentation, there are outliers in every category. Children from disadvantaged families have exceeded the average vocabulary for their sampling group and vice versa. Regardless, children need to be provided with parental support for their linguistic nutrition. As Fernald says in her speech, “Babies are born ready to learn.” If provided the opportunity to grow, children can achieve educational greatness despite the SES group they may be associated with.

With the guidance of a parent or guardian, children can excel during year two. No matter the numbers, SES does not define an individual’s ability to learn. With careful attention and early childhood support, there is hope beyond the gap.

Did You Know?
The Dick and Jane book series was used in the 1930s through the 1970s, primarily as a basal reader to teach children how to read. Published by Scott Foresman, these books were accompanied by teachers’ guides to help with the learning process. The books used the look-say, or whole word, method. This was used to emphasize a word’s meaning rather than practice phonetics.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Is Pre-K Play the Way to Go?

by Shalen Lowell
Intern, Spring 2015

When you think back to your grade school days, what comes to mind as one of your favorite activities? Many of us might say, “Recess!” Children look forward to this time of day during which they can break from academic studies and socialize. But what if play was integrated into academic studies, rather than set at a designated time? When it comes to paving the way for a new pre-K curriculum, is integrated play the way to go?

For kids, play is fun, exciting and refreshing, so why not integrate more organized play into pre-K classrooms? Nancy Nager and Shael Polakow-Suransky, authors of the New York Times op-ed “The Building Blocks of a Good Pre-K,” think so. The authors emphasize that school curricula should maintain a balance between traditional academia and organized play: “We do not need to pick between play and academic rigor. . . . As they play, children develop vital cognitive, linguistic, social and emotional skills.” Instead, the authors write, teachers should integrate more purposeful play into the classroom curriculum, and that play should be at the core of such a curriculum. Instead of separating play from formal learning, Nager and Polakow-Suransky argue, it should be a part of learning.

Edward Miller and Joan Almon also discuss this need for play strategically incorporated into regular curricula in their book Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School [PDF link]. They write that school curricula need to “be broadened so that children who excel in nonacademic areas also have a chance to show their skills. . . . Children of all ages, but especially younger ones, need a broad-based curriculum that includes play, recess, the arts and a wide range of activities.” Incorporating play and outdoor activities into children’s everyday school routines, in addition to regular recesses, will enhance their learning environment, making it more dynamic and allowing those students who may not excel in specific academic studies the chance to do so. Another link Miller and Almon connect to the overall importance of well-balanced pre-K is that such activity can reduce childhood obesity. They write that some health professionals have found a link between the decline of outdoor play and the rise of childhood obesity; therefore, play may indeed be the way to go in the case of building a solid and dynamic pre-K foundation.

Many schools and organizations across the country provide such needed social and outdoor interaction for children, both in the forms of outdoor lab courses and external programs. One such organization is Save the Bay. Save the Bay is an environmental nonprofit organization located in Providence, Rhode Island, and for almost 30 years its Explore the Bay (ETB) program has hosted students across southern New England. Save the Bay runs a variety of programs in its on-site, “living” classrooms in Providence, in which children participate in lab-based activities with water tanks and tide pools, and learn about marine life and other topics in environmental science. The ETB center is also home to their education vessels, on which students cruise on the bay and participate in hands-on activities, including testing water quality and examining organisms from the bay.

As part of my work with the Watershed Action Alliance, another environmental coalition in southeastern Massachusetts, I visited Save the Bay and witnessed firsthand this type of interactive learning. I visited on a day when two buses of students came, and I was able to tour their interactive classrooms, vibrant and full of water tanks for lab activities. One of the walls even boasted a mural of the Narragansett Bay watershed, so the students could literally see a snapshot of their environment. I also stepped aboard the Alletta Morris, one of Save the Bay’s vessels and floating classrooms, where students would later take a ride out onto the bay. Before I left, I saw the children arrive for afternoon activities, and they seemed excited and enthusiastic with anticipation for their day out on the bay, a refreshing break from their regular classrooms.

Teachers, parents and administrators alike are increasingly seeing the multitude of benefits students receive from organized play and outdoor classroom curricula. With the help of organizations like Save the Bay and Nature’s Classroom and ideas such as school gardens, schools are incorporating such play. Whether it’s a floating classroom in the form of an education vessel or organized play in a traditional classroom, children across the United States are thriving and benefitting more from the dynamic, interactive play afforded while in school.

Did You Know?

Nature’s Classroom, an environmental education organization located across New England and in New York, has hosted over 750,000 students in its programs since its inception. Nature’s Classroom hosts students from schools all over the Northeast in summer camps, weeklong seminars and day trips, fostering a sense of environmental awareness, critical thinking and community in its students. The organization uniquely supplements students’ in-class learning with curriculum-based learning in the outdoors, in the form of activities such as a math class in the woods, where students might create a geodesic dome or navigate the forest using a map and compass.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Researching Research: Do Students Know How to Use the Internet?

by Dakota Damschroder
Intern, Spring 2015

As a child of the mid-nineties, I have had the joy of experiencing both the “old” and “new” sides of technology. In elementary school, I would store school assignments on floppy disks; in middle school, I made the transition to flash drives; and in high school, I started using cloud storage. I have lived the experience of wandering around my school’s library searching, sometimes in vain, for the five print resources I needed for a research assignment. This was, of course, before we were allowed to use internet sources.

Though I acquired my first computer at the ripe old age of 13 and became quickly acquainted with it, I didn’t really start the process of learning how to use the internet for academic research until my junior year of high school, and even then, my teachers still encouraged us to focus on print sources.

Most teachers these days are singing a different tune. In fact, according to “How Teens Do Research in the Digital World,” study conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project that surveyed teachers in the Advanced Placement (AP) and National Writing Project (NWP) programs, 99 percent of over two thousand participants agreed that the internet gives students a larger range of resources than they would otherwise have access to. However, despite the fact that children grow up submerged in technology, today’s students don’t seem to have the necessary skills to weed out irrelevant information to find the true gems. Despite the positive praise about the internet in general, 87 percent of all teachers also believe that this same access is creating an “easily distracted generation with short attention spans.” At the same time, 76 percent of teachers surveyed “strongly agree” with the assertion that internet search engines have conditioned students to expect to be able to find information quickly and easily.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project also performed a series of focus studies with students and teachers alike, and both groups believe that, for most students, researching simply means “googling.” The study reported on what resources students typically use for their assignments. Turnitin, an online resource for student evaluating and learning, compiled an infographic of this data, which shows that the top three sources for student research are search engines like Google, online encyclopedias like Wikipedia and social media websites like YouTube. Most of the time, this isn’t enough to give students enough rich source materials to complete their assignments at the expected level of quality.

One major contributing factor seems to be the lack of an explicitly stated demand for teaching online researching skills in the first place. While many school districts do make it a focus, they do so by teaching select components of internet research as an aside to a major assignment. However, some teachers and librarians are taking the initiative to teach these skills by using a separate lesson plan, making sure to focus on individual aspects and providing exercises to help students improve. For example, students practice smart searching, which involves using precise words, learning Google shortcuts to refine searches, and learning to evaluate websites for legitimacy. Teachers may also provide their students with student-tailored search engines, such as SweetSearch, and show them how to use academic databases that the schools pay for, such as JSTOR.

While many educators are starting to tailor their lesson plans to include online research, there is the added question of when to start. Children are becoming more familiar with the internet at younger ages—so at what grade level should teachers step in and start honing research skills? That answer is still unclear and, depending on the school district, might just be up to the discretion of the teacher.

Luckily, there is a healthy community of online teachers willing to share their knowledge and advice. Teachers such as Mary Beth Hertz and Jeff Utecht have shared their favorite online resources and lesson plans for teaching research at all levels. As Hertz notes, research is one of the hardest things to teach, and it might be one of the hardest to learn. With the ever-increasing scope of the internet, however, the results are more than worth the effort.

Did You Know?

Though learning how to efficiently teach internet research skills might be a challenge, it certainly isn’t the first for teachers. Classrooms have always had to adapt and change due to new technologies. The school slate of the 1890s, for example, created the opportunity for kids to goof off by drawing “infelicitous” things, and the 1957 reading accelerator was meant to help students read more efficiently (though it didn’t really catch on). In the near future, classrooms might have to adjust to augmented reality (AR) glasses, which will layer data or images on top of a student’s  visual field, perhaps allowing the student to have a “conversation” with historical figures about their past.

Friday, February 6, 2015

On the Road: One Librarian’s Journey with a Book Bike

by Alyssa Guarino
Jr. Project Manager

In many communities, the public library is a well-recognized institution by adults and children alike. However, some libraries find their halls to be frequented only by a fraction of their community’s population, and are reaching out to increase their membership.

Last spring, the Evanston Public Library (EPL) in Illinois found a new way to cater to their patrons, looking to become more accessible by becoming mobile. Thanks to a donation from the Evanston Bicycle Club, the library acquired their book bike—a motorized bicycle that pulls a cart filled with books for patrons to check out. The bike is also equipped to provide library cards for those who do not have them, as well as the opportunity to register for upcoming programs at the EPL.

I interviewed Community Engagement Librarian Jill Skwerski, whose duties include driving the book bike across the city in the warmer months.  

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges you face trying to increase membership/visits from members? On the bike specifically?
A: Evanston is a great town for biking, but some parts of town have narrow streets that don’t have any bike paths. The town is set on improving biking into the neighborhoods, but we did a good job of getting into the core neighborhoods within a two-mile radius of the library. The far south and west and north sides are harder to reach. A site I wanted to reach was a church with food distribution, but it’s difficult to bike to. Evanston is a busy suburb of Chicago—some side streets have speed bumps, some streets are too busy. We’re determined to hit those this year. The biggest challenge for me as community engagement librarian, and for the library as a whole, is being sure that we are providing the best possible library service to everyone in the community. There are always people [who] won’t come—either they physically can’t, or the library is not part of their lifestyle or culture—so we have to be sure that we do our best to get out into the neighborhoods and bring access to services in low access areas. We have to listen to what people need and respond appropriately—maybe it’s not story time, but technology training.

Q: Was there a specific demographic that responded better to the book bike?
A: Kids, absolutely! [They are] open to anything, so the bike was a smash with the younger crowd, especially when I brought the Mo Willems books. Adults tend to need library cards; my first patrons were a couple who had just moved [to Evanston]. It is exciting for kids, but a fair number of adults are thankful to meet me because they never get to the library, or never renewed their cards, and they can now access our online services.

Q: Was there a particular location that was most popular/successful?
A: The beaches! Everyone is down at the [Lake Michigan] lakefront in the summer. There is a bike path that runs through from one end to the other.

Q: How has the book bike been adapted for the colder seasons?
A: The book bike is on hiatus until warmer weather [arrives]—there’s no place where people naturally gather out of doors in winter. We’ll bring it out again around Memorial Day until about October.

Q: In a Chicago Tribune interview, you had mentioned ideas for updating the book bike to better accommodate your patrons. Have you made any of those changes yet?
A: The bike will have a closed lid that opens-up down the middle that can display materials or a laptop. A library board member is working on the modifications. We also plan to get a stool. We need it for the little ones, since there is a very deep basket [for them to reach into].

Q: What differences do you anticipate the modifications bringing in terms of how patrons respond to the bike?
A: They will be able to see from a distance that books are displayed and that the bike is not an ice cream truck!

Q: Are there any plans for expanding the program, such as a second bike?
A: My grand scheme is to have two bikes, though funding is always an issue. [I’m planning to reach out to Northwestern, to find] students to volunteer to ride bikes across town and hit our regular stopping points. [I’m working on a schedule so that we] can visit each neighborhood location.

Q: Are there any other programs/events you have planned to increase membership/visits that are coming up?
A: The book bike has been a great boon for bringing our services out into the neighborhoods and we’re looking forward to more successes. We’re hoping to get to the free lunch distribution in parks in the summer with every day service and also visit the food pantries and monthly produce mobile. Social media hopefully will also generate more interest; we can tweet out “Look for the book bike here at 2:00.” [Our pilot year was 2014], and it’s still a work in progress, so we’re figuring out [what will work better,] a set schedule or just getting everywhere we can.

Off book bike season, the EPL still has a great presence in Evanston. In addition to their main building, they also operate branches on the north and southwest sides of the city. When she’s not thinking up ideas outside the box (or, in this case, outside the bookshelves), Jill teaches computer classes to seniors and provides service to after school programs throughout the year.

Did You Know?

Last year, we covered library summer reading programs. The summer 2015 theme of the Illinois Reading Enrichment and Development (iRead) will be “Read to the Rhythm” and the Collaborative Summer Library Program (CSLP) is planning a summer of “Heroes.” Programs at public libraries are growing more and more creative every year, as librarians cater to the diverse interests of their patrons.

In Louisiana, the Rapides Parish Library branches have enacted an Adult Bingo Book Challenge that will run until March of 2015 to get more patrons in the door.

Genealogical Research and Publishing: From the Gilded Age to DNA

by Chris Hartman
Project Manager

Genealogical research techniques have evolved greatly from the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century, where finding one’s roots was largely the province of wealthy families who could afford professional researchers. Goals from this endeavor, aside from making a record of one’s ancestry for posterity, included proving a royal or presidential lineage, or membership in an exclusive hereditary organization such as the General Society of Mayflower Descendants (GSMD), the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) or the General Society of Colonial Wars, each of which was founded in the 1890s.

Often, such research would be published as sumptuous hardcover books, elaborate family record charts, samplers or artfully penned and illustrated manuscript genealogies. The idea was to demonstrate reverence for one’s ancestors by producing what was often considered a work of folk art.

Nowadays, in addition to information gleaned from dusty tomes, microfilm in libraries and, more recently, online resources, genetics has become a critical component of modern genealogical research. Typically, for between $100 and $200, you can now submit a DNA sample that will shed light on your family’s ancestry, a concept that in years past might hardly have been imagined. Popular television programs such as Who Do You Think You Are? on TLC and Finding Your Roots with Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. on PBS have driven a surge of interest in family research, and DNA often plays a key part in that process. In 2005, National Geographic commenced its Genographic Project, a multi-year study where scientists are using genetic and computational technology to analyze historical patterns in DNA from participants around the world in order to better understand our human genetic roots.

The means of publishing family genealogies has become more technological and less expensive in recent years. One method involves computer software. Programs such as Ancestral Quest, Legacy Family Tree and RootsMagic guide you through and help organize the genealogical data that will give you the answers you’re looking for. They can also export several different formats of the information, such as ancestral charts and reports. I personally worked with a client—a retired engineer—who designed his own computer-aided design (CAD) model to produce a series of ancestral charts that filled a wall in his home. Which brings up another reason for compiling research: being able to display the fruits of your labor for family and friends.

USA Today contributor Gregory Rodriguez writes, “Alex Haley, author of the hugely popular 1976 book Roots, once said that black Americans needed their own version of Plymouth Rock, a genesis story that didn't begin—or end—at slavery. . . . [Roots] also shared with all Americans the emotional and intellectual rewards that can come with discovering the identity of your ancestors.” Over a hundred years after the end of the Gilded Age, advances in technology, plus a curiosity about one’s own ancestry—driven by Haley’s book and its various television adaptations—have resulted in an increased democratization of the field. It is finally possible for enthusiasts of genealogy, even the non-gilded, to realize the rewards.

Did You Know?

In a 2012 story, ABC News wrote on their website that genealogy, which nets $1.6 billion annually, is an American avocation second only to gardening in popularity. With respect to this phenomenon, The Guardian, based in the UK, has also written of the phenomenon, noting that “interest in family history is undergoing an unprecedented boom, fueled by archives on the internet, websites devoted to helping would-be genealogists and the popularity of BBC1’s Who Do You Think You Are?” The show’s own roots date back to 2004 on BBC, but the concept crossed the pond in 2010, when NBC aired its first American episode. The show has since been picked up by TLC.