Academic journal article The Science Teacher

What's Living in Your World? Building Research Partnerships for Inquiry-Based Learning

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

What's Living in Your World? Building Research Partnerships for Inquiry-Based Learning

Article excerpt

The average biotech catalog contains a dizzying array of kits offering tried-and-true protocols in molecular biology and biochemistry. Many of the most reliable have been adapted to biology teaching. Prepackaged experiences, ranging from DNA fingerprinting to protein purification, are now available to high school students. With minimal practice for students, instructors can expect a high success rate even with fairly advanced molecular techniques.

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Although commercial kits designed for education provide excellent hands-on experiences in molecular technology, the students using them are merely reproducing predetermined results. Such canned laboratories do not necessarily promote an "inquiry into authentic questions generated from students' experiences, the central strategy for teaching science" (NRC 1996, p. 31). Fortunately, however, the remarkable reliability of many available protocols now makes this possible.

Teaching molecular technology within the framework of open scientific inquiry provides a dynamic learning experience. Students discover that science is not just about learning techniques, but rather using those techniques to answer questions about the world around them. In this setting, where the design of the research experience is not hatched in a distant commercial laboratory, students are invested in the outcome of their experiments beyond the goal of an "A" on a lab report. Because a wide variety of molecular protocols are now so reliable, teachers can emphasize scientific inquiry and experimental design rather than the technology itself. Of course, there are additional challenges to such an approach. Open-ended molecular research can require the ability to string together multiple techniques and the use of expensive instrumentation or hazardous materials unavailable or inappropriate in a high school setting. However, teachers can address these challenges by developing partnerships with university and other professional researchers, as outlined in the "Standards for Professional Development for Teachers of Science" (NRC 1996, p. 55).

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Planning a project in DNA forensics

Using resources common at research institutions and commercially available molecular protocols, two Advanced Placement biology high school classes carried out a project in DNA forensics. We used a series of procedures, all from fully contained commercial kits, to perform genetic typing on bacteria growing in students' everyday environment. Although some of the exercises may at first sound intimidating to those with little hands-on molecular experience, they involve knowledge and techniques that are already incorporated into most high school biology curricula. All of the exercises can be easily accomplished in collaboration with an experienced research partner.

Students began by swabbing a surface and streaking the swab on a petri dish containing enriched agar medium. Our students were encouraged to be creative in their sampling, but it is important to observe commonsense safety. Students should not collect bacteria from a location that they would not go poking around otherwise. Even with precautions, however, environmental samples may contain potentially dangerous bacteria and therefore should not be cultured in a high school lab (Kwan, Summers, and Texley 2004).

By teaming up with a professional, students can sample the unknown, free from the risk of exposure to disease-causing agents. Sampling plates should be sealed immediately, before any bacterial colonies begin to grow, and removed to a safe culturing facility where they can be handled by only the teacher or trained researchers. Students can then work with clear digital images of their sample plates (see petri dish image, p. 20) when choosing colonies to begin their forensic examinations.

Isolating a gene from each sample colony

Using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) (Mullis et al. …

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