When high school students touch their tongues to paper strips infused with the organic compound PTC, some wrinkle their noses at the bitter taste. Others don't understand the fuss, because they can't detect a thing. But this isn't a taste test, it's a genetic experiment. In the past four years, more than 2,000 high school students across New Mexico have conducted basic genetics experiments with the help of New Mexico State University scientists and a mobile lab that travels to a different high school each week. Among other things, students study the gene that controls their ability to taste PTC. In the process, they learn the distinction between genotypes and phenotypes. The lessons are hands-on, personalized, and arguably more memorable than textbook-based instruction.
The program, created with the help of an HHMI grant in 2006, has been a success—but the school's HHMI program director, Ralph Preszler, knew it was only a beginning. "The lab was so popular that we couldn't respond to all the requests from high schools," he says.
Thanks to a new grant from HHMI, NMSU won't have to say no; instead, the school will expand its offerings. The grant will support new programs that equip high school teachers with the tools and information they need to develop classroom modules similar to those offered through the mobile lab. The teachers will be able to borrow specialized lab supplies—which schools on tight budgets often can't afford— for isolating genes and genetic markers. They will also take ownership of the process, adjusting the lessons over time to better suit the needs of their students and schools. In later stages, the program's veteran teachers will pair with outreach scientists to develop entirely new lessons and experiments.
In the end, Preszler hopes these modules will give high school students a new perspective on science. "We want them to understand that biology is exciting and interesting," he says. "And we hope that it inspires them to continue their studies in college."