A New Way to Look at Red-Green Colorblindness

When we cover genetics in our nonmajors biology classes, many of us use red-green colorblindness as a familiar example of X-linked inheritance. We may even ask our students to indicate whether they can see the numbers or symbols in Ishihara plates. (For privacy, we’d ask via anonymous clicker questions, of course.) If our classes are large, we may even be able to demonstrate that more males than females are red-green colorblind.

Image of Ishihara plate from Wikimedia

For those of us with “normal” vision, however, it may be hard to understand what the world looks like to people with red-green colorblindness. I admit that I never thought much about it until I saw these two short videos, posted by the University of Oklahoma’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art.

Screen capture from Part 2 of the colorblindness video.

At this point, you may be wondering what red-green colorblindness has to do with art museums. Well, our art museum created these videos to publicize their recent purchase of colorblind correction glasses to loan to museum patrons. The videos follow two colorblind students who are using the glasses while exploring the museum, seeing for the first time what red and green look like to most people. The videos are brief, funny, and enlightening, so I recommend them for use in your classes.

You can stop reading here if that’s all you want; it’s where I would have stopped if I hadn’t started digging a little bit more into how colorblind correction glasses work. I learned that the glasses are made of special materials that block out the specific, overlapping wavelengths that make it difficult for colorblind people to distinguish between red and green.

So … do they work? According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the answer is “it depends.” That’s because the form and severity of colorblindness makes a big difference in whether the adjusted wavelengths actually help a patient differentiate between red and green. The glasses also have some limitations: They are expensive, and they block some of the light entering the eye, meaning they should not be worn while driving.

I also found an article suggesting that the glasses may not be all they’re cracked up to be. That article summarizes research published in a journal called Optics Express. Not surprisingly for a journal about optics, the contents of the article are on the technical side. Nevertheless, the article contains many data tables, one or more of which students could analyze to draw their own conclusions about whether the glasses work as advertised.

If you want to use this topic to teach about scientific thinking instead of as a quick genetics lesson, consider having your students watch the art museum’s videos, look at some websites that promote colorblind correction glasses, and then evaluate the strength of the promotional claims and/or the strength of the Optics Express study’s conclusions. If you do, please leave a comment to let me know what you did and how it worked!

This entry was posted in Assignments, Engaging students, genetics, Teaching, Videos and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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