At Play with DNA: The Burlington Barcoding Project

Students at Burlington High School got to play with DNA and move learning beyond the textbook for their Genetics class this year. Science teacher Molly Heath came across the Urban Barcode Project from New York City last year, and it inspired her to look for ways to engage her students with the Burlington community in a similar manner. She applied for grants to fund the right equipment and earned grants through the Vermont Academy of Science and Engineering and the Partnership for Change.

Heath noted the advantages of providing students with more project based learning, community based learning and authentic problem solving this year in her course. “I found value in giving students the opportunity to slow down and find a topic that was meaningful to them. The quality in student presentations and level of engagement was exciting.”

There were also challenges. “The challenges were learning to let go a little and that it’s not going to be perfect, clear cut and organized perfectly. You find out that everything takes more time than you think it will.” One example is Heath purchased an open source version of a thermocycler, which typically costs thousands of dollars. She found one for $600 that required assembly. The advantage was that the class got to see all the parts of the thermocycler and how they operated. The disadvantage was that one part broke, and they had to wait for another to replace it.

Heath found that letting go was a good lesson for both her and her students. Together they were reminded that failure is a part of the scientific process. Junior Rumana stated, “I think for us it was pretty easy to get DNA samples. But we lost a lot of samples through the extraction and amplification process. It was a good lesson for us.” Rumana’s team researched the DNA of sushi at local supermarkets and restaurants. They extracted and amplified DNA samples to verify whether people were getting what they paid for according to labeling. Her team found that one local restaurant served salmon sushi that DNA tested as freshwater large mouth benny. “I think it matters to the community,” said Rumana. “Many people love sushi and it’s important for people to know what they’re getting and paying for.”

Another team tested camel meats at local markets. They discovered all the camel meat was indeed 100% camel meat. “We didn’t eat it,” said Annika. “I hate meat,” added Taylor. “It’s good! I ate camel meat in Japan this spring. It tastes like tough chicken,” I replied. My response didn’t convince them.

One project included testing the cafeteria meat at BHS. It tested as 100% meat. Naturally.

A final project consisted of testing tea samples from name brand and generic teas. The tea team found that green teas and English Breakfast teas tested for the same DNA despite being generic or name brand, while chamomile and mint teas had very different DNA and came from different species between generic and name brands.

It was fun to see all the student projects this morning. The students and Heath tried and failed and succeeded together in a truly student centered project. Heath’s vision, openness to innovation and willingness to let go truly helped the students to develop some important 21st learning skills in an authentic manner.

The class celebrated the end of their presentations with bunsen burner s’mores. Everyone agreed it was in their DNA to like s’mores.

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