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Agricultural Literacy Curriculum Matrix

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Roll of the Genes

Grade Level(s)

3 - 5

Estimated Time

Two 45-minute sessions


Students will learn about genes and how they affect important traits such as growth, reproduction, disease resistance, and behavior. Students will also discover the responsibilities of an animal geneticist.


  • Brahman Beef Cattle Photograph
  • Angus Beef Cattle Photograph
  • Brangus Beef Cattle Photograph
  • Colored pencils
  • 4-sided dice, 1 per student
  • Have You Any Wool? handout, 1 per student
  • Cattle Call handout, 1 per student

Essential Files (maps, charts, pictures, or documents)


offspring: the descendants of a person, animal, or plant

gene: a unit of heredity that is transferred from parent to offspring and determines some characteristic of the offspring

heredity: the transmission of genetic characters from parents to offspring

trait: observable, physical characteristic obtained through genetic inheritance

Did you know? (Ag Facts)

  • Geneticists study genes, heredity, and variations of living things. They could work as a researcher or a professor at a university.1
  • Biology, chemistry, and mathematics are important subjects for an animal geneticist to understand.2
  • Most animal geneticists have a master's degree or doctorate degree.2

Background Agricultural Connections

This lesson is one in a series of five related lessons to promote the development of STEM abilities and critical thinking skills, while fostering an appreciation for the people involved in livestock production. For more information about what STEM is, why it's important, and how it can be implemented in your classroom, watch the video, What is STEM? The curriculum includes real-life challenges for students to investigate, inquiry-based labs, and opportunities to plan and construct models. Featured careers include:

Heredity is the passing on of traits from parents to offspring. Most plants and animals have two of every kind of gene, one from their mother and one from their father. Only one gene from each parent is passed to each offspring for a particular trait. For example, a gene will determine eye color. Alleles are forms of the same gene with small differences in their DNA sequence. For example, one allele will determine brown eye color and another allele will determine blue eye color. These small differences contribute to each organism’s unique physical features. These physical features are called “phenotypes.”

Some alleles are dominant while others are recessive. Dominant alleles overpower recessive alleles and are always expressed in offspring. Recessive alleles can only be expressed in offspring if both parents contribute a recessive allele. One of the easiest ways to calculate the mathematical probability of inheriting a specific trait was invented by an early 20th century English geneticist named Reginald Punnett. His technique employs what we now call a Punnett square. This is a simple graphical way of discovering all of the potential combinations of two gene sets and the resulting genetic traits. It also illustrates the probability, or chances, of each combination occurring.

Understanding and being able to use a Punnett square is a basic skill for an animal geneticist. They use the Punnett square to predict the outcome of breeding two animals. By understanding how genes are passed on to offspring, scientists can help improve a wide range of economically important traits. They can also decrease the likelihood of an animal receiving an undesirable trait which may affect the health and well-being of the animal.

In this lesson, students will use a simple Punnett square to predict the outcome of fictional and fantastical livestock breeding experiments. They will practice determining the probability of each possible outcome and create a drawing of the offspring they create.

Refer to the Answers to Commonly Asked Questions for more background information.

Interest Approach – Engagement

  1. Brainstorm physical features, such as eye color and hair, which make students look different from each other.
  2. Explain that these characteristics are called traits. A trait is a physical characteristic or feature, obvious and observable, which is inherited from one or more parent.
  3. Ask the students if animals also possess traits. Brainstorm physical characteristics found in animals. Examples could include coat color or pattern, size of the animal, the presence or absence of horns, etc. 
  4. Explain that like people, animals also have specific traits that distinguish them. These traits are a result of their genetic makeup. At the completion of this lesson, students will:
    • consider how genes affect traits; and
    • discover the role of an animal geneticist.


  1. Review the concept of probability and related terms such as chance, likely, unlikely, possible, and impossible with the students.
  2. Instruct the students to raise their hand if they’ve ever been told they look like a family member. Allow a few students to share about their personal experience. Explain that traits are passed from parents to their children through DNA. The piece of DNA that carries the trait is called a gene. Clarify that traits may be dominant or recessive. A dominant trait is displayed if one or both parents carry the trait. A recessive trait is displayed only when both parents carry the trait.
  3. Tell the students that traits are also passed on in the animal world. For example, livestock geneticists have been able to improve a breed’s traits through selective breeding programs. For example, breeders were able to cross Brahman beef cattle (show students the Brahman Beef Cattle photograph) and Angus beef cattle (show students Angus Beef Cattle photograph). Have students describe some of the obvious physical traits of each breed. Explain that the breed created from the two breeds is called a “Brangus” (show students the Brangus Beef Cattle photograph). Encourage students to identify the physical traits inherited from the Brahman and the Angus breeds. Explain that geneticists purposefully developed the breed to create a superior animal. Brahman cattle are tolerant to hot climates, and outstanding mothers. Angus cattle have excellent meat quality. The Brangus has the characteristics of both breeds.
  4. Distribute the Have You Any Wool? handout to students and project a copy onto a large screen. Read the sheep’s genetic background aloud and define any unknown scientific terms. Explain that the Punnett square is a diagram that helps geneticists predict the outcome of breeding two animals.
  5. Explain that the class is going to use the Punnett square to determine what color wool the sheep’s offspring will have. Dominant traits are expressed with a capital letter and recessive traits are expressed with a lowercase letter. If dominant and recessive traits are combined, the dominant trait will always overpower the recessive trait. Complete the Punnett square in front of the class while explaining the process.
  6. Remind the students that probability is the likelihood that a particular event, or outcome, will occur. It is expressed as a fraction with the numerator being the total number of favorable outcomes and the denominator being the total number of possible outcomes. In this scenario, two quadrants have dominant genes for white wool and two quadrants have recessive genes for black wool; thus the lamb has a 2 out of 4 chance of inheriting white wool and a 2 out of 4 chance of inheriting black wool. Have every student roll a die to determine the breeding outcome. Instruct students to sketch a portrait of the lamb in the box provided at the bottom of the handout.
  7. Tell the students that now that they know how to use the Punnett square to predict what animals will look like, they will practice being an animal geneticist by creating their own breed of cattle. Distribute the Cattle Call handout to students. Students will use the information provided about the bull and cow to determine the physical attributes of their offspring. Explain that the traits used as examples are not necessarily real cattle traits, but the traits will help students understand the main concepts of heredity. Instruct students to complete the Cattle Call handout. Review the handout and allow students to share their artwork.

Concept Elaboration and Evaluation

After conducting these activities, review and summarize the following key concepts:

  • An animal geneticist studies the genetic makeup of animals. They can help farmers and ranchers select and promote desirable traits in their animals. As animals improve, they are better able to provide meat, milk, and eggs to our diet.
  • The Punnett square is a tool used to predict the likelihood of an animal inheriting a specific trait.
  • The work of an animal geneticist benefits both producers (farmers and ranchers) and consumers.


  • Introduce genetics through an educational video on heredity. Check out the video “Heredity” on BrainPOP or search YouTube using the term “Punnett Square.”
  • Students work on the project individually, with a partner, in small groups, or as a class.
  • Students research actual phenotypes expressed in breeds of cattle. They create new variations of cattle by crossing actual breeds with the imaginary cattle featured in the Cattle Call handout.

ELL Adaptations

  • While leading students through the Have You Any Wool? handout, allow students time to think and respond to questions.
  • Throughout the lesson ELL students can be partnered with students that are proficient or advanced English speakers.
  • Students can define new terms like genes and alleles in their science journal or on a classroom word wall for future reference.

We welcome your feedback! Please take a minute to tell us how to make this lesson better or to give us a few gold stars!


Enriching Activities

  • Instruct student groups to select a cattle breed to research. Have each group create a visual aid that illustrates the genetic history of their breed, including countries of origin, breed characteristics, and genetic selection over time.

  • Invite a local breeder to speak to the class about how they utilize genetics to improve their herd.

  • Have students research the educational background and skills required to be an animal geneticist.

  • Observe pictures of Hereford and Brahman cattle, and predict what a Braford would look like. Repeat with other breeds of Beef Cattle.

Suggested Companion Resources

State Standards for Minnesota

Agricultural Literacy Outcomes

Science, Technology, Engineering & Math

  • Identify examples of how the knowledge of inherited traits is applied to farmed plants and animals in order to meet specific objectives (i.e., increased yields, better nutrition, etc.) (T4.3-5.c)
  • Provide examples of science being applied in farming for food, clothing, and shelter products (T4.3-5.d)

Food, Health, and Lifestyle

  • Identify careers in food, nutrition, and health (T3.3-5.f)

Common Core Connections

Reading: Anchor Standards

    Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

Speaking and Listening: Anchor Standards

    Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
    Make strategic use of digital media and visual displays of data to express information and enhance understanding of presentations.

Writing: Anchor Standards

    Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.

Mathematics: Practice Standards

    Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them. Students start by explaining to themselves the meaning of a problem and looking for entry points to its solution. They analyze givens, constraints, relationships, and goals. They make conjectures about the form and meaning of the solution and plan a solution pathway rather than simply jumping into a solution attempt. They consider analogous problems, and try special cases and simpler forms of the original problem in order to gain insight into its solution. They monitor and evaluate their progress and change course if necessary. Students check their answers to problems using a different method, and they continually ask themselves, “Does this make sense?” They can understand the approaches of others to solving complex problems and identify correspondences between different approaches.
    Reason abstractly and quantitatively. Students make sense of quantities and their relationships in problem situations. They bring two complementary abilities to bear on problems involving quantitative relationships: the ability to decontextualize—to abstract a given situation and represent it symbolically and manipulate the representing symbols as if they have a life of their own, without necessarily attending to their referents—and the ability to contextualize, to pause as needed during the manipulation process in order to probe into the referents for the symbols involved. Quantitative reasoning entails habits of creating a coherent representation of the problem at hand; considering the units involved; attending to the meaning of quantities, not just how to compute them; and knowing and flexibly using different properties of operations and objects.
    Model with mathematics. Students can apply the mathematics they know to solve problems arising in everyday life, society, and the workplace. Students who can apply what they know are comfortable making assumptions and approximations to simplify a complicated situation, realizing that these may need revision later. They are able to identify important quantities in a practical situation and map their relationships using such tools as diagrams, two-way tables, graphs, flowcharts and formulas. They can analyze those relationships mathematically to draw conclusions.

National Standards


3-LS3: Heredity: Inheritance and Variation of Traits

  • 3-LS3-1
    Analyze the interpret data to provide evidence that plants and animals have traits inherited from parents and that variation of these traits exists in a group of similar organisms.
  • 3-LS3-2
    Use evidence to support the explanation that traits can be influenced by the environment

4-LS1: From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes

  • 4-LS1-1
    Construct an argument that plants and animals have internal and external structures that function to support survival, growth, behavior, and reproduction.


Consider submitting a lesson or companion resource to the National Agricultural Literacy Curriculum Matrix.
National Agricultural Literacy Curriculum Matrix (2013) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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