A trip to the DNA Learning Center in Cold Spring Harbor for a set of labs ignited the intellectual curiosity of 35 fifth graders in the Huntington School District’s SEARCH program.
The group traveled a short distance west on Route 25A for an exciting day of hands-on labs specifically related to a recent 16 week unit on genetics and biology that quenched the youngster’s thirst for science and lab investigations.
Maryann Daly, SEARCH chairperson-teacher has been bringing fifth and sixth graders to the DNA Learning Center for nearly 30 years. The facility is an operating unit of the world-renowned Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. It is billed as “the world’s first science center devoted entirely to genetics education.”
“Several years ago, while our children were attending these labs at the center, Nobel Prize recipient Dr. James Watson (the molecular biologist and geneticist who made groundbreaking DNA discoveries along with Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin) was there as well to deliver a speech to a select group of scientists,” recalled Mrs. Daly. “He was even kind enough to say hello to our young children, a special treat they will long remember. They understood why this man and people like him are much more than just celebrities. These are the people who have changed the way mankind battles diseases.”
The SEARCH fifth graders were divided into two equal sized groups shortly after their recent arrival in Cold Spring Harbor and went right to work with their trained instructors.
The first of three labs involved developing lactose free milk. The Huntington fifth graders created the lactase enzyme using a solution of sodium alginate and calcium chloride, which formed into small beads. “After scooping up the beads into a large syringe, they then poured milk through, pushing the liquid out into a cup,” Mrs. Daly explained. “In order to test if their experiment was a success, the students then placed three glucose indicators into the liquid. If two of the three indicators turned green and then eventually brownish in color, then they were successful in creating lactose free milk.”
A second lab focused on learning how to extract DNA from wheat. “This is a brand new lab, which totally grabbed the attention and enhanced the excitement of all of the students,” Mrs. Daly said. “It was cool to twirl the DNA strands around a dropper after it was separated from the wheat using ethanol and a liquid detergent. It was amazing to see that they could actually touch the DNA and see it with their very own eyes.”
The youngsters said the best part of all was being able to bring home their very own DNA sample in a small vial. “The children were extremely protective of their DNA,” Mrs. Daly said. “No one dared to leave the DNA vials even when the instructor told them they could return to their same seats after lunch to participate in the final lab session.”
A third lab involved understanding the makeup of the double helix, including its nucleotides and the two sides of the “twisted ladder,” which were composed of sugars and phosphates. “Cytosine always joined with guanine and adenine always joined with thymine,” Mrs. Daly said. “Each student created their very own model of DNA which they eagerly took home.” (The DNA molecule is a double helix that appears visually as a twisted ladder.)
“The instructors were impressed with the knowledge these young students had about genetics and the children were equally fascinated and interested in being a part of these labs involving real world science,” Mrs. Daly said. “I am certain we have some future scientists in this group of children. Their interest level was high and their enthusiasm to learn more about this science was refreshing.”
The weekly SEARCH (Scholastic Enrichment and Resource for the Children in Huntington) pull-out program involves the top ten percent of students in both the fifth and sixth grades in the district. Students qualify for participation as a result of their respective percentile rank on state assessments and the OLSAT.