Yesterday was the day Saint David's fifth grade boys had been eagerly anticipating!
The boys, along with a cohort of their teachers, traveled to the DNA Learning Center's research facility in Cold Spring Harbor for a full day of hands-on work extracting and analyzing DNA at the prestigious laboratory.
The boys worked with professional-grade lab equipment to solve a "DNA mystery." They were given a sample of one plant that is known to have life-saving medicinal properties, but is very hard to cultivate. They were also given three other plant samples and asked to determine, based on their extensive DNA analysis, which of the three was most closely related to the cure-all, and therefore, the most likely to share its medicinal properties.
Working in pairs, each fifth grader practiced following the steps of a lab protocol to carefully isolate and extract DNA from the leaf sample, amplified the DNA using PCR (this process makes billions of copies), and then loaded their DNA samples into an electrophoresis gel, and then interpreted the results.
Some of these bio-tech processes need time to sit and "cook." During this downtime the boys enjoyed lunch, explored the learning center's hands-on DNA exhibits, and sat down for a colloquy with research scientist Dr. Mona Spector, who has spent her career studying the ways cancer cells disrupt and change DNA sequences. Identifying genes that are frequently mutated as cancer advances might identify good "targets" for therapy.
The boys were thrilled to participate in this day of learning, and the questions they asked were thoughtful and probing. It was most exciting for them to see how the science work done in a lab relates to real life issues and concerns, and has the potential to do great things like identify cures for diseases.
This type of connection-making is very powerful and will "travel" back with our boys to their science labs at school in the form of increased understanding as they continue their study of DNA this term in our partnership with the DNALC. The boys' visit yesterday was just one component of this signature unit of study in our innovative fifth grade program.
Later in the year, when fifth graders take on their own "DNA Barcoding" projects, they will use the same techniques they learned about, experimented with and employed yesterday; but this time, they will answer a question of their own design. This is active, critical learning at its finest.