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Incorporating DNA Education in Early and Intermediate STEM Learning

By Ginger Abbot

Posted on 2021-07-22

Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers are central to America’s success as a country. Yet a widening skills gap has existed for years. As more kids lose interest in these career fields, American businesses are struggling to fill millions of positions. Meanwhile, countries like China and India continue to lead the world in raising young STEM graduates. In doing so, they bolster their economies and raise the bar for competitors like the United States.

As a result, teachers have an extraordinary opportunity to embrace STEM education and encourage students to do the same. One way to accomplish this is by introducing more complex topics, like genetics, in a way that young kids can comprehend.

Here are a few ways to incorporate DNA STEM learning into your lesson plans and support students’ interests and passions.

  • Use an App. Most kids have their own smartphones or tablets, so why not put them to good use? Dozens of apps are available to help students learn about DNA on their own and within the classroom. For instance, Gene Screen provides a wealth of information about recessive genetics, genetic screening, and genetic diseases. Four in-app animations also introduce concepts like genetic inheritance and population genetics. Meanwhile, apps like Virtual Cell use movies, images, and quizzes to teach kids about DNA.
  • Try DNA Fingerprinting. DNA education for middle schoolers may require more engaging activities, like DNA fingerprinting. This multi-step exercise is perfect for a lab and will help students detect the Alu polymorphism (a polymorphism consisting of the presence/absence of an Alu element at a particular chromosomal location. Alu is a transposable element, a rare sequence of DNA that can move [or transpose] itself to new positions within the genome of a single cell) in themselves and fellow classmates. First, use cotton swabs to isolate DNA from students’ cheek cells and amplify it by polymerase chain reaction (PCR, a laboratory technique used to make multiple copies of a segment of DNA). Then analyze the PCR by gel electrophoresis (a technique used to separate DNA fragments according to their size) and use the results to learn more about the kids’ ancestry. This process is also helpful for conducting forensics because it determines a person’s molecular fingerprint, thereby differentiating them from every other person on Earth.
  • Extract Strawberry DNA. Some kids have trouble understanding DNA because they can’t see it. Luckily, there are numerous ways to explain such a microscopic concept to visual learners. One such explanation involves extracting DNA from strawberries, which is much easier than removing and analyzing human DNA. For this experiment, you’ll need resealable bags, strawberries, dish detergent, salt, water plastic cups, a coffee filter, cold rubbing alcohol, and coffee stirrers. By the time your students are done smashing these ingredients together, you’ll have white, cloudy DNA to observe and examine. (NSTA safety note: Have your students wear goggles to avoid the strawberry mixture splashing into students’ eyes.)
  • Explore ethical Issues. Genetic testing is a heated topic of discussion nowadays. While it can offer hope to individuals who can’t have children naturally, it also raises questions about the ethical implications of testing embryos and fetuses. Help students explore and discuss these concerns by examining a few case studies. Use one case study to explore the arguments for and against patenting the genetic code. Then use two other case studies to examine the implications of genetic modification and screening newborns for genetic diseases. What are the ethical issues surrounding gene patenting? What might happen if scientists did genetically modify embryos? Compare answers and discuss different opinions.
  • Trace everyone’s ancestry. More than half of Americans worry that kids aren’t pursuing STEM degrees because they’re too difficult. However, 34% of students said they either found a different path or simply lost interest in these subjects. Thus, teachers have a unique opportunity to make genetics and other related topics engaging and exciting for children. One way to do this is to associate genetics with family history. Many kids want to know where they came from, what their ancestors looked like, and why they have certain physical features that their friends don’t. Teachers can play on these interests by connecting genetics with ancestry. Help kids make a family tree, and use Punnett squares to discuss recessive and dominant traits. Older kids might rather take a DNA test or talk about the results if they—or maybe even their pets—have already taken one.

Start Them Young

The best way to raise a new generation of STEM professionals is to introduce topics like genetics and DNA in early and intermediate educational settings. Presenting such complex and intriguing subjects at a young age, when students are most curious, will prepare them—and the entire country—for long-term success. How will you incorporate DNA education into your classroom?

Ginger Abbot is editor-in-chief of

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