In 2007, WSKG Radio aired a series of reports on genetic science research in our region.
Kathleen Cook visited the Discovery Center’s "Amazing Arachnids" DNA camp to follow along with the teaching and the experiments.
Comparative genomics, the mapping of the human genome, and the rapid explosion of information about genes, DNA, and how they affect our relationship to the world around us, has made the teaching of these concepts increasingly important. I’m Kathleen Cook. I’m an adult with a college education, yet I found myself reading the book "Genetics for Dummies" by Dr. Tara Rodden-Robinson just to gain a vocabulary and understanding basic enough to ask questions of those developing lessons in DNA for grade school children.
Every summer kids head off to camps of various sorts; there’s soccer camp and music camp, outdoor camps with swimming and archery. Well, this summer, on a day hot enough to need a fan on in the room, I visited some 8 to 12-year-olds at the Discovery Center of the Southern Tier in Binghamton, NY for Day 4 of their week-long Amazing Arachnids Day Camp session where, as you may guess, they’ve been learning about spiders.
"Thank you so much for inviting me to your camp today. Today we’re going to talk about DNA."
Wait a minute. Did she just say DNA?
" DNA really is a more common concept than even when I was younger and I was going to school. So I think it is good to start explaining this early."
Binghamton University graduate student Angela Lundgren interned with the Discovery Center to research and create lessons for their spider camp.
"The camp’s lessons included spiders so I was trying to figure out how to blend DNA and information about spiders. It kind of works good because, you know, you start out talking about DNA and then you have a specific example besides humans. OK, spiders have DNA and spiders are unique because they spin webs. It’s their DNA that lets them be able to spin webs because in their DNA it’s passed on from every generation how to spit webs and how to make their silk."
Then teacher Nikki Barnard used those ideas to work with the kids.
" The topic of DNA obviously applies directly to them so when we can explain DNA using who they are and who their parents are and who their family is, then I think it becomes more personal and it’s something they can really relate to."
"DNA is like a blueprint that your body reads to tell your body what to look like. Every cell in our body is made of DNA and DNA gives that cell a code called genes. Have you heard of genes? Maybe you haven’t heard of DNA so much, but you’ve probably heard of genes. Not the kind of genes you wear. So, your genes are a code and..."
"I started explaining it, you know, like writing out and that’s when you take a step back and you’re like, OK, how can I explain this to children?”
"If you make it simplified they’re still getting the main points, you know, younger children than maybe I thought can be doing this. I included a lesson plan on genetic cells and DNA. The DNA really explains how DNA is a code that carries information because now-a-days kids understand codes. With the internet you don’t see the things carrying information, but yet it still does. So DNA is something that everything has and each DNA strand has specific information. When you talk about the specific information that’s when you get into the genetics. I included a lesson plan on cells because every living thing also has cells and cells are where DNA is found."
"One kind of cell that is large that we can think about and look at all the different parts. An egg is actually one gigantic cell. So we’re going to take a look at some eggs. We’re going to crack them open and look at the different parts of the cell."
"It was a fun activity that our intern came up with" (Nikki Barnard) "a monster family and the kids create a pretend monster family and the mom looks like this and the dad monster looks like this and then they have to make the baby monsters. So, I think once they have an understanding of the DNA and the first level affects the next level organisms then they can have hands-on fun ways to apply their understanding of it."
"DNA is shaped like a ladder almost and then on each one of the rungs of the ladder as you imagine a ladder you climb up, that’s where all of the genes are; all of those codes to tell your cell what to do. So we’re going to make a model of a DNA strand and we’re going to put your information from your little tally chart on the rungs of the ladder." (Angela Lundgren)
"You know when you send an email it goes someplace else, or even when you watch television it’s coming from somewhere else, but you can’t see it. The DNA holds information like an email and then when you click and open the email you can see the information. Well the DNA is carried and you can see the information that the DNA carries through you, you know, through a spider and the types of webs they make, what it hunts, how it lives, what shape it is. You can see the DNA physically being imprinted. You may not see the actually strand of DNA, but you can see the results of DNA."
One of the experiments used at the camp involved actually extracting DNA from strawberries.
"One of the things that we’re going to use is a baggie and it’s just like a Ziploc bag. Of course, we have our strawberries, our organism that we’re going to extract the DNA from. This test tube is filled with water and salt, and this is the extraction solution. It’s going to be able to break down the cell wall and extract the DNA. It’s pulling the DNA out of those cells once we get the cell wall broken..."
Each child was given strawberries they put into a zippered plastic bag, squished into a pulp, and pressed through cheesecloth extracting only the juices. Then a solution was added to the juice to separate it further and make the DNA material rise to the top. The kids were able to take the gooey substance from the top, put it into Petrie dishes, and look at it under a microscope.
"Yes, look, that’s DNA."
"You got a magnifying glass to check it out?"
"No, that’s not DNA, this is. I picked all the DNA off of that."
"So what does it look like under there? Can you describe it?"
"Kind of like a half-eaten jelly bean, like the inside of a jelly bean."
"It’s pretty cool."
"So what do you think this has to do with spiders?"
“It’s the DNA that makes them know like when they spin a web or something and how they get the web in their spinnerettes and stuff like that, that they’re going to have 8 legs and all that stuff."
"It sort of helps them think. It tells them what color hair they have and what kind of spider they are and what web they’re going to make."
"Now that is awesome!"
"When you give kids opportunities to get excited about new science ideas you’re really planting a seed and even if they don’t understand the full concept on all of its levels that seed is planted and then maybe next year when they’re in the next grade or when they come in contact with that concept again they get it. That light bulb goes off, and they say OH, yeah, yeah, I know all about that, and they feel good about themselves. That’s what it’s about I think."
This segment is the first of a 5-week series made possible with support from the DNA Files, a project of Sound Visions Productions. Visit our website at WSKG.org to see videos of the kids learning about DNA at camp this summer and to explore other resources about DNA and genetics.