Biotechnology teacher/trainer Judith Price shows a step in the DNA fingerprinting process to Montgomery County, Maryland, biology teachers Dina Link, Patricia Richards and Sanford Herzon.
When Dina Link, a biology teacher at Northwest High School in Germantown, Maryland, teaches her students DNA fingerprinting, they can't believe they are getting the opportunity to actually do it themselves. "The kids are very impressed that we are letting them use this equipment," says Link. "They think it's something only Ph.D. scientists get to do. They are most definitely engaged."
Working in pairs, the students study DNA samples from three fictional crime suspects, plus evidence collected at a fictional crime scene. Like real forensic scientists, they pour milky-colored agarose gel into casting trays, use the micropipettes to load the DNA into tiny slits in the gel called wells, and then place the gels in an electricity-charged box called an electrophoresis chamber. The electricity pulls the DNA toward the positive end of the chamber and separates it into bands of different-sized DNA fragments. By comparing the pattern of the bands from the crime-scene evidence with the bands of the three suspects' DNA, the students determine which suspect was at the scene of the crime.
The kids are very impressed that we are letting them use this equipment. They think it's something only Ph.D. scientists get to do.
Link learned to conduct the DNA fingerprinting lab and six other biotechnology labs now required by Maryland's Montgomery County Public Schools in a biotechnology training and support project funded by a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). Based at the DNA Resource Center at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, Maryland, the program trains educators to teach sophisticated biotech labs and lends them all the necessary equipment and supplies to conduct the labs back in their own schools. The training is offered twice a year to county middle school and high-school science teachers. By June 2003, more than 97 percent of MCPS biology teachers had been certified by the program.
"You can hardly turn on the TV or read the paper without seeing DNA technologies being used—somebody being freed because of new DNA evidence or a new drug treatment being tested—so we're on the front lines in making sure our students are informed," says Judith Price, the program's biotechnology teacher/trainer and a former MCPS science teacher. Link, in her second year of teaching, agrees. "To bring something kids see in the media into the lab is so exciting for them."
Biotechnology training coordinator Patricia Richards, a biology teacher at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Maryland, recalls doing a DNA fingerprinting lab in her college cell-biology course. "It was an upper-level course, and now I`m teaching this to high school students, including special-ed and non-English speaking students," she says. "It's so accessible, they can all understand it. This is a great example of how research technology can be brought to the high school level."
During their training, the teachers also are taught how to safeguard the equipment and the students. Each of the program's five complete loaner kits is worth about $25,000. There are also two partial kits, since some schools have some of their own equipment.
Karen Furr, who manages the program's equipment and supplies, makes the kits as teacher-friendly as possible by preparing and portioning out all samples, saving the teachers up to ten hours of preparation time.
Price says the Maryland program is one of the largest biotechnology-equipment projects in the country. It gives teachers and students access to cutting-edge science and equipment, the knowledge to use it, and in-school mentoring and support as the teachers bring biotechnology back to their classrooms. Many students call the labs their favorite unit of the year. "Their excitement gets me excited," says Link.
And it's paying off. MCPS students consistently make the highest biology test scores in Maryland.