Biology Classes Analyzing Genetics

By David J. Hoff — March 06, 2002 | Corrected: February 23, 2019 7 min read
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Corrected: This story misidentified a high school in Virginia Beach, Va. The school is Frank W. Cox High School.

Kim Finkelstein recently asked her mother for help with her biology homework. It wasn’t to be.

“She said they didn’t have DNA [studies] in school, and she couldn’t help me,” lamented the freshman at Frederick W. Cox High School here.

Ms. Finkelstein, 15, and other biology students in this oceanfront city are all learning lessons that weren’t part of their mothers’ biology classes. Instead of memorizing the animal-classification system, they’re pulling strands of deoxyribonucleic acid— the basis of the genetic code—from strawberries and blueberries. They’re mimicking analyses conducted by forensic criminalists by watching how proteins in dye react in specialized gels in much the same way as DNA does in blood. And they’re learning how top-of-the-line equipment analyzes blood samples to identify criminals or to free those wrongly charged of crimes.

Such instruction shows that the content of the biology curriculum is slowly catching up with the scientific research on DNA and the human genome. Since scientists discovered that DNA molecules determine genetic inheritance in 1943, they have found ways to apply that knowledge in medicine, criminology, and agriculture. As the scientific discoveries accelerated in the 1990s, what students learn in biology classrooms gradually followed.

“It is being integrated into high school classrooms everywhere,” said Erin L. Dolan, the outreach coordinator for the Fralin Biotechnology Center at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg. “Faster for some than others, but definitely for all.”

Nor is the study of in-depth genetics, coupled with hands-on laboratory work, just for high-achieving students anymore, science educators say.

“The need is out there,” said Gary L. Corbin, the genetics-program coordinator for the science-outreach office at Washington University in St. Louis.

“People are looking for things to do that work in their classrooms.”

Sparking an Interest

Here in Virginia Beach—whose expansive borders in the southeastern corner of the state encompass resort attractions, suburban neighborhoods, nature preserves, and U.S. Navy installations—the 75,000- student school district spent $33,000 for new equipment that allows it to develop hands-on labs for the students in its 11 high schools.

On Valentine’s Day, students in Dell Young’s biology class at First Colonial High School are performing what now is a standard lab in the district.

Her students produce a gel with six holes in it. When the gel solidifies into a substance that’s a little firmer than Jell-O, the students insert dyes into the holes. Then they place the gels in an electrophoresis unit, which sends an electric charge through water.

Over the course of 20 minutes, the proteins in the dyes move away from the holes, much like DNA does when medical researchers or forensic investigators conduct experiments with live tissue or blood samples.

At the end of the lab, each dye leaves a distinct mark in the gel. By looking at the distance the dyes have traveled, students are able to see which ones are pure versions and which ones are mixtures.

The lab has gone well, Ms. Young says at its conclusion, despite occasional interruptions from the delivery of carnations and the rest of the excitement over Valentine’s Day.

“The kids who usually aren’t interested,” Ms. Young said, “are interested in this lab.”

The experience gives them the chance to relate to what biologists and chemists do in real labs, she and other teachers say.

When Kim Finkelstein’s biology class does similar work at Cox High School the following day, one of the boys suggests he could repeat the same experiment using DNA that the class had extracted from fruit the week before.

The teacher, Claire Lant, invites him to come after school a few days later, when other students are conducting a makeup lab.

“It surprises you,” Ms. Lant said. “All of sudden, you hit something and spark an interest.”

Infusion of Resources

While the teachers here are starting to see such sparks, it has taken them several years to get to that point. For two years, Gregory MacDougall, the high school science coordinator for the district, requested money to buy the equipment needed for the lab work. The funding finally came through last year.

The equipment he purchased included electrophoresis units, a water bath to keep the gel ingredients liquid before the experiment begins, and special pipettes to place the DNA samples in the gels. While the district purchased the equipment specifically for genetics labs, teachers say they will find ways to use some of it in other labs, too.

Even after they received the equipment, teachers needed time to learn about recent discoveries in genetics and to design labs for it. Ms. Young and Mr. MacDougall attended a summer conference with educators from across the country at the Fralin Center on Virginia Tech’s campus.

Later, Ms. Young, Ms. Lant, and several other teachers spent three days in their labs searching for ways to conceive and carry out lessons that students could understand.

After several tries, they found they could break down the cell walls in fruit by mashing the fruit in a plastic bag and mixing it with a combination of shampoo and alcohol. The DNA then rose to the top and could be pulled out with a wire brush. They also found that they could rely on dyes to replicate how DNA cells react under electrophoresis.

Even though the materials are cheaper than what professional labs use, they yield the results the teachers are seeking.

Help Available

Several biotechnology- outreach centers, such as the ones at Virginia Tech and at Washington University in Missouri, are available to help schools enhance their genetics instruction.

For example, Washington University runs a weeklong, 40-hour course every summer to help 60 teachers get ready to tackle a 12-week unit on genetics, according to Mr. Corbin, a high school teacher before moving to Washington University.

The preparation is needed, he said, because the subject matter is often unfamiliar to teachers, especially those who graduated from college more than 10 years ago, and the labs require teachers to work with equipment they have had no experience using.

“A three-hour workshop is not enough,” said Toby M. Horn, the coordinator of a private venture to improve science education in the District of Columbia schools. “It takes a while to get teacher comfort.”

Ms. Horn estimates that many biology classrooms are 20 years behind today’s scientific research. Because teachers graduated from college before the recent findings in genetics research were uncovered, they don’t know how far the field has come, he said.

Wayne Carley, the executive director of the National Biology Teachers Association, a Reston, Va., membership group, said the lab work is further behind than the content of the curriculum. The expense of lab materials is a hurdle many districts can’t clear, but the curriculum that teachers are working with is regularly updated to keep pace with scientific discoveries, he said.

Major Societal Issues

While finding the time to get ready for teaching genetics was difficult for teachers in Virginia Beach, deciding where to find time in the curriculum was not.

Starting last fall, educators here scaled back the time they dedicated to teaching students how to classify animals as mammals, birds, or other groups and their subgroups of the animal kingdom. They had found in the past that students covered most of that material in middle school, said Ms. Young, the First Colonial High School teacher.

What’s more, the shift in emphasis reflects the trend in the field of biology. While identifying animals and plants through their physical characteristics was the way that science was conducted for most of the 20th century, looking into their genetic makeup is a challenge for today.

“That’s the way modern biology is going,” said Mr. Carley.

Genetic research will have an impact on every student’s life at some point, according to Patrick G. Ehrman, the program manager for high school outreach for the Institute for Systems Biology, a project of the University of Washington in Seattle.

Every student will need to know about genetics before he or she can address such ethical issues as cloning, the rights of law- enforcement officials to take DNA samples, and health-insurance companies’ use of genetic analysis to determine clients’ level of risk for disease.

“These are major societal issues,” said Mr. Ehrman, a former high school teacher. “We need to do this kind of science for kids. They’re going to need this knowledge to make decisions.”

At the moment, high school students in Virginia Beach aren’t primarily concerned about the ethical implications of what they’re learning. For now, they just think it’s cool.

“It’s like you’re doing it for real,” said Stephanie Martone, a freshman at Cox High School. “I definitely understand it. You can see what you’re doing. You don’t have to guess.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 2002 edition of Education Week as Biology Classes Analyzing Genetics


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