Who doesn’t like to experience something new? Certainly not sixth graders in the Huntington School District’s SEARCH program. Thirty youngsters recently traveled to the DNA Learning Center in Cold Spring Harbor for a series of labs that ignited their intellectual curiosity.
The group trekked west on Route 25A for several hours of hands-on labs related to a months-long forensics unit that whetted the student’s appetite for science and learning everything they can about it.
Maryann Daly, SEARCH chairperson-teacher has been bringing fifth and sixth graders to the DNA Learning Center for more than 25 years. The facility is a wing of the world-renowned Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. It is billed as “the world’s first science center devoted entirely to genetics education.”
“These labs aren’t your traditional classes,” said Mrs. Daly, who collaborated with the DNA Center’s Erin McKechnie to customize the learning experiences and tie them directly to the SEARCH forensics unit.
The SEARCH sixth 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 youngsters engaged in three separate labs in all.
The first of three labs focused on DNA “fingerprinting” and ran for two hours. “They created gel using liquid agar, which eventually hardened into a square piece of Jell-O like gel,” Mrs. Daly said. “They used a ‘comb’ to create indentations in the gel and were then given dye in small containers. Using pipettes, they practiced how to place the dye carefully and accurately into the cavities they had created in the gel without allowing the dye to spread onto the surface, which wasn’t easy to do at all. Next they were given samples of DNA, which had to be carefully placed into the next four cavities. Following this, they hooked the container to the electricity and watched the DNA spread into long strips across the surface of the gel itself. Under a black light, each gel sample indicated whether or not the DNA of one of the three suspects matched the evidence sample.”
The sixth graders found the lab both “cool” and “fascinating” and they thoroughly enjoyed it. What impressed many of the students the most was discovering their instructor was none other than Pauline McGlone, a Huntington graduate and a former Math Olympiad student of Mrs. Daly’s.
“What a great example for the sixth graders of how someone who came from their own school district could do so well in the field of science and then actually return to teach science in the Center and work with Huntington students, too,” said Mrs. Daly about Ms. McGlone.
A second lab in a computer room delved into the mystery of Anastasia Romanov, a daughter of Czar Nicholas II, the last ruler of Russia before the Bolsheviks overthrew the government and seized power. The royal family was murdered in cold blood on July 17, 1918, but rumors persisted that Anastasia somehow escaped since her body was missing from the mass grave that included the others. DNA testing long held out the hope of putting an end to the mystery and definitively identifying the suspected remains. A woman by the name of Anna Anderson insisted for decades that she was really Anastasia. Anderson even lived on Long Island for a stretch of time.
A week earlier, Mrs. Daly utilized a SMART Board presentation to showcase the history of the Romanov dynasty and the Bolshevik revolution. The veteran educator used clips of actual footage of the four daughters and Alexi, the only son of Czar Nicholas II and his wife, Alexandra.
“The story not only fascinated the children because it was true, but also saddened many because these were innocent people struck down in their youth,” Mrs. Daly said. “Forensic science actually solved the mystery of whether or not Anna Anderson was the real Anastasia, whose body was missing from the mass grave in Yekaterinburg, which is now called Sverdlovsk.” (DNA testing definitely proved that Anderson was not Anastasia.)
A third lab involved the extraction of DNA from wheat germ. “It was cool because every student was given a vial of DNA to take home with them,” Mrs. Daly said.
The proximity of the DNA Center to Huntington has made it easy for Mrs. Daly to utilize the facility to enrich the SEARCH curriculum.
“We should take advantage of a place like this to expose students to this important science, which has helped so many people in our world. With that being said, students need background information and experience in these scientific areas before they participate in these sophisticated lab sessions to benefit the most from them,” Mrs. Daly said.
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.