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August 3, 2006

Adventures in DNA: Middle school students do real research at the Burke

Nine lucky middle schoolers are spending this week studying DNA, thanks to a new program at the Burke that makes use of the museum’s Genetics Resources Collection. Called “Investigating DNA: The Albatross Salvage Project,” the day camp teaches the basics of how DNA is used to find answers to real conservation questions around the world.

The camp is organized around a central question: Can a DNA test determine the sex of albatross (gender is not always obvious in birds), so that a researcher in the field in New Zealand can use a simple blood test to pinpoint the sex of the birds she’s working with? The Burke has several hundred specimens of albatross from New Zealand, the sex of which has already been determined by dissection. So theoretically, by performing DNA tests on these specimens, a researcher could learn if those tests were accurate in identifying gender in this species.

“That’s the back story we created for the students, to make it interesting for them,” said Sharon Birks, manager of the Genetics Resources Collection and one of the teachers for the camp. “It’s not totally realistic, but what they’re doing in the lab is pretty much what they would be doing in an actual research project, minus a couple steps that would either take too long or involve chemicals we don’t want them exposed to. But they’ll learn all the equipment, the whole process. And it’s really not that far removed from a real world request.”

The Genetics Resources Collection is a collection of frozen tissues taken from thousands of animals from all over the world, and is the second largest collection of its type for birds. The Burke receives the specimens, extracts the tissue for the collection and keeps the specimens. Keeping the specimen is very important, Birks said, because then it becomes what scientists call a voucher. That way, when research is done using a tissue sample, the results can be verified and replicated by going back to the voucher — the original specimen.

“Part of the reason we’re doing the camp is because Julie Stein, the Burke director, wanted more people to learn about this collection,” Birks said. “It’s been sort of hidden because it’s physically inaccessible and it’s hard to do a display on it, yet it’s one of our busiest and most important collections. Doing the camp is a way of reaching out into the community with it, developing an education program for it.”

Museology graduate student Victoria Smith took the lead in developing the camp concept as part of her required practicum, and was mentored and advised by Birks as she worked on it. With an undergraduate biology degree and five years’ experience as a technician in a molecular laboratory, she knows her way around DNA, but creating an education program was something new for her, so she began her research by talking to people who had done similar projects.

“A lot of other programs that do DNA and the hands-on processes we’re doing have been targeted toward high school kids,” she said. “The people I interviewed were surprised and really happy that we were going to be targeting middle school kids.”

With the information she gleaned from the other programs, Smith began brainstorming with Birks about what would be possible for students of this age to do in one week. Two other graduate students, Marley Banker and Melanie Frazier, joined the curriculum development team. The group decided that the major technique the students would learn would be a DNA fragment analysis called PCR.

“It’s a method whereby you make millions of copies of a gene region of interest to you,” Birks explained. “Then there’s a simple way you can visualize it by running it through an agarose gel in a process called gel electrophoresis.”

The result looks something like the negative of a photograph — with the male and female DNA fragments clearly distinguishable.

The PCR process will be the culmination of what the students learn earlier in the week — often through games and hands-on activities. For example, they’ll learn about base pairs and the double-stranded nature of DNA by building models of it using materials such as candy, balloons and model magic. They’ll learn about extracting DNA by first getting it out of items like vegetables using kitchen equipment. The “kitchen lab” extraction will be followed by a real lab extraction, which uses much tinier volumes with much pickier reagents.

“But each step can relate back to what they did in the kitchen lab,” Birks said.

The students won’t be using a real albatross sample, because tissue from the collection is not used for educational purposes, nor will they run an actual PCR test. But they will do a laboratory DNA extraction from chicken tissue and they will learn all about PCR and do a portion of the process, including pouring and running an electrophoresis gel. Birks did the actual PCR test using real samples and will show her results to the students. The students will then analyze the results and write a group letter to the New Zealand researcher they are supposedly helping.

For Smith, the whole process of collaborating on designing the class has been rewarding. “I don’t think the general public knows a lot about science, and I think that museums — being public institutions — have a responsibility to provide opportunities for them to learn about it,” she said. “In this program I think we’re creating fun and interesting ways for the kids to learn about DNA, and I’m excited about that.”

Diane Quinn, the Burke’s education director, is grateful to the Burke staff for making the DNA day camp possible. “The support and expertise of the Ornithology Division, especially Dr. Birks, has been essential to turning a theoretical college class project into a real learning experience for middle school students,” she said.

Quinn said various pieces of the weeklong program would be used in upcoming science programs at the Burke. For more information about the DNA camp or other Burke education programs, call 206-543-9681 or e-mail