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Free Science Curriculum Teaches DNA Barcoding

Two doctoral candidates at the City University of New York Graduate Center recently scored prizes from the American Association for the Advancement of Science for a project in which they created inquiry-based science curriculum to teach high school and college students how to do modern biological research.

Marissa Bellino, who is studying urban education, and Stephen Harris, who is studying biology, sought to develop an "experience and skill set" that would encourage students to become interested in the sciences. The project began in 2010 at a public high school in New York City through a STEM education program run by the National Science Foundation. The project has also been tested in Belize, a country that had no DNA lab before the program was put on for about 20 high school students.

In "DNA Barcoding from NYC to Belize" students collect field samples and learn how to extract DNA and generate barcodes. According to Bellino and Harris, "sampling can occur in local parks as a way to inventory biological diversity or at local markets to investigate potential mislabeling."

The course materials also explain to teachers how to run both low-budget and more advanced DNA barcoding labs. DNA barcoding is the process of identifying species based on short fragments of DNA. The DNA sequences developed in the two field tests have been made publicly available on The Barcode of Life Data Systems as a resource for the international scientific community.

The yearlong curriculum covers five major topics:

  • Sampling local biodiversity;
  • Molecular biology theory and practice;
  • The science of DNA barcoding;
  • Analyzing DNA barcodes; and
  • Generating DNA barcoding research questions.

Educators are also encouraged to work with individual units to fit time constraints and unique student needs. The work encompasses reading scientific literature, and students are introduced to the C.R.E.A.T.E. protocol, a method for unpacking complex scientific text and generating research questions.

In the culminating sessions students learn how to develop proposals and produce results that can be presented at science competitions or uploaded online to the GenBank Sequence Database or the Barcode of Life Data System. Research projects already undertaken in the program include finding the genetic diversity of bed bugs in New York City, identifying bioindicator species in polluted parks, and investigating the mislabeling of fish fillets from local fish markets in Belize.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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