This spring, we transformed Eighth Grade science class into a course remarkably similar to Core Lab. In February, we inaugurated the Eighth Grade partnership with the Cold Spring Harbor DNA Learning Center. Educators from the Learning Center led students through a series of ever-more complex labs, culminating in a multi-week DNA Barcoding research project, in which students chose topics of investigation, gathered samples outside of school, and isolated and processed DNA in order to determine the species that their sample belonged to.
Throughout these increasingly complex labs, students honed their use of some key molecular biology tools and techniques — tools that I first encountered in college, and then used every day during my student internships in genetics labs.
First and foremost, students became comfortable using pipetters: highly precise tools used to measure and transfer tiny quantities of liquids during labs. Students used gel electrophoresis to separate DNA strands by size, and learned various applications for this powerful technique. During DNA extractions, we entrusted boys to load and run a small centrifuge, teaching them the importance of balancing the test tubes so that the rotor, spinning at 1340 rpm, doesn’t get thrown off-kilter; and they learned the theory behind Polymerase Chain Reaction, or PCR, a method of copying DNA segments that has utterly revolutionized the study of genetics.
After practicing these techniques in a number of structured labs, we introduced students to the major project: groups would choose a research topic that could be answered through DNA barcoding, and plan and execute a test of their question. This project provided students a great deal of leeway to follow their own interests. Many groups chose to investigate food fraud: choosing a type of food (groups chose a wide variety of food products, including hotdogs, hamburgers, sushi, and teas); collecting samples of their food type from local stores, restaurants, or food trucks; and barcoding each sample to test whether the food contained the ingredients claimed.
Other groups chose biodiversity-related topics, sampling algaes, mosses, or even fish caught and released (with a permit) in Central Park. Two groups aimed for health-related issues: one group swabbed subway surfaces and phones to identify prevalent bacteria, and another ambitious group attempted to find parasites in fish from fish markets.
Many groups found exciting results: enterobacter on subways, fish in what was labeled as turkey, and bacteria in store-bought fish. Other groups found expected, and often reassuring, results: all the beef hotdogs tested truly were beef, and local restaurants serve what they claim to. Groups troubleshot questionable results, hypothesizing factors that could have gone wrong in their experiments.
When I think back to my Core Lab class, I remember what a struggle it was to absorb all the new information and techniques — and even to develop the dexterity required to transfer, say, 20 microliters of liquid into a tiny well in an agarose gel. I know some of these boys will go on to learn what I did, and more, and when they come to a class like Core Lab, they will know exactly what to do.