DISCOVERING DNA - The Explorer: Import

DISCOVERING DNA

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Posted: Wednesday, October 2, 2002 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:46 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Paola Carbajal's face glowed an eerie shade of blue as she leaned over the lab table to get a closer look at the slab of blue-stained gel lying on a fluorescent light box.

She was trying to see the arrangement of DNA markers in the gel in order to determine the paternity of a humpback whale calf. By knowing which whale in the family pod fathered the calf, researchers would be better able to keep track of the pod's genetic diversity. The information was critical to human efforts to save the endangered whales.

Carbajal is not a researcher for Greenpeace, the U.S. government, or even a graduate student for a major university -- she's a student in Lynne Cote's human biology class at Mountain View High School.

Cote has been teaching students how to separate deoxyribonucleic acid from living cells and how to map its markers since 1996.

Though the goal of the class is to teach students the basic elements of biology and to meet the science standards that will soon be part of the state's AIMS test, Cote said she's also creating informed citizens.

"DNA is being used more and more these days," she said. "And the general public doesn't know (much) about it.

"I think it's important for students to know what is current. They need to know why (DNA) is used and how it could be used."

Cote said in the near future everyone will have a DNA profile done, with the information used for everything from predicting whether someone will get cancer to use as an identifier for access to Internet sites or even secret government buildings.

She started teaching the complexities of DNA extraction and mapping in 1996, using a computer program to show students how DNA is separated, how it's multiplied using polymerase chain reaction, and then mapped using electrophoresis.

But for the last four years she's been having the students do it themselves, thanks to equipment and supplies provided by the BioTech Project at the University of Arizona's Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology.

The project is overseen by Nadja Wehmeyer who said last year the project provided biotechnology training to 100 Arizona teachers and provided laboratory supplies and equipment to about 40 schools, aiding the biology education of more than 6,000 Arizona middle and high school students.

But this may be the last year the project is able to aid biology education in Arizona. Wehmeyer said the project is funded through a grant from the Flinn Foundation and requires matching funds from the university. She said due to state budget cuts, the matching funds are being eliminated, putting the grant in jeopardy.

Cote said using the equipment provided by the project has been so successful in aiding her teaching, that she is seeking her own grant to purchase the equipment for the school.

"When they can do things like this, it makes learning fun," she said. "You almost trick kids into learning by giving them cool stuff to do."

Carbajal, who wants to become a forensic scientist, said she specifically took Cote's class because she knew she'd get to do DNA labs.

When asked what she likes about the class, Carbajal said, "Everything."

"You just get to do a lot of stuff you don't get to do in other classes," she said.

Cote estimated she'll need about $4,000 to buy her own electrophoresis equipment and supplies to continue doing the DNA labs. Finding a grant to purchase the equipment won't be easy but Cote said she's optimistic she'll find one. After all, she's done it before. In the last four years, Cote has brought in about $175,000 in grants to the school, including a grant from Intel that created a portable laptop computer lab that has greatly aided science teaching at the school.

Cote is a technology junkie, making use of computers and the Internet in her classes whenever she can. As an example, students in her advanced biology classes don't turn in reports on their research. Instead they use their laptops to make powerpoint presentations to the class.

Cote said the use of technology helps the students learn on many levels. They learn biology, of course, but also become proficient computer users, Internet researchers, critical thinkers and even better writers.

Cote was the state runner up two years ago for Intel's Innovation in Teaching award. Since then she's become a trainer for the company and spent the summer traveling around the country as a senior trainer, conducting workshops that teach teachers how to integrate technology into their classrooms, whether the subject is English literature or human biology.

She also conducts online workshops for teachers through PBS TeacherLine, an online resource for teacher continuing education.

But though Cote teaches teachers as well as students, she's also frequently a student herself.

Two summers ago when she decided she wanted to do more with the BioTech Project's outreach programs, she and Amy Corner, who teaches biology at Marana High School, attended the project's two-week technology "boot camp." The two then returned to their schools better able to integrate into their classes nearly all of the experiments provided by the BioTech Project.

Cote said four of MVHS's five biology teachers are now using some aspect of the BioTech Project's curriculum.

Cote said by using technology, students are more interested in the class than they would be reading a text book or watching a video. And interest leads to learning, she said.

"When they're doing a lab and they say, 'this is cool,' right at that moment, they don't realize they're learning," Cote said.

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