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High School Scientists Lead DNA Demonstration At NMS



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Newtown High School Applied Science Research (ASR) students visited younger cohorts in Emily Neff’s eighth grade science classes on February 23 to lead an activity extracting DNA from a strawberry.

Before the longest class period of the day for Neff’s class, ASR students took time to regroup and make some decisions about how to conduct the period.

“They decided to reorganize and do it differently, so they’re learning as they go,” said ASR teacher and advisor Tim DeJulio. “It’s pretty cool that high school students are figuring this out all on their own.”

When eighth graders arrived and settled in their seats, they were briefed on the day’s fruit-centric experiment.

The visiting high schoolers took time to introduce themselves and discuss what the ASR class was all about before jumping in with the lab materials set on the tables. The ASR students started the lesson by reminding younger students that strawberries are octoploid — which means they have eight sets of chromosomes, six more than most humans who gain one from each parent.

According to the presenters, individual students work on one research project involving experiments throughout the year and would present their findings and process at various shows at the local and state level — perhaps even advancing to a national competition.

DeJulio informed the class that students were in contact with working scientists and professors at universities.

“You design your own project and get to complete it, which a lot of high school students don’t get to do,” Rachel Krauss said, leading the introductions of the ASR class.

Rachel is one of the students who has taken the class for multiple years, since the focus of the class is independent study and can be fresh every year.

Areas Of Focus

One by one, the ASR students talked about their work on the subjects they had chosen to pursue, and the eighth grade students were silent listeners. When Rachel presented, one student had piped up to remark that her project contained “a lot of writing.”

“You’re all capable of this,” Rachel later said to the middle schoolers.

Projects included Beatrice Cardamone’s study surrounding neurodegenerative diseases, and Lydia Cox’s experiments to see if sunscreen could be used to deposit beneficial nutrients into the water, among others.

Aiden Burbank talked about his process creating a robot that could play ping-pong and showed how his designs evolved over time.

“You have to keep designing and testing,” he said.

Neff asked the ASR class whether they find “more successes or more failures in this process,” to which they readily responded “failures.”

“That’s how science works,” Neff said, addressing her eighth graders.

After the introduction, everyone in the room donned a pair of goggles and it was time to start the experiment. Students sat in groups, each receiving a strawberry in a bag, and were asked to add salt, meat tenderizer, and dish soap.

Then, the middle school class was instructed to crush the strawberries in the bag with “as much air out as possible,” a process that seemed to be accomplished with enthusiasm.

They were in a process of denaturing the strawberry, which, according to the ASR students, means to change the structure.

After the crushing, and as the solution was heated and then placed in an ice bath to cool, students expressed disbelief that they would be able to see the DNA with their eyes alone. Some asked where the microscopes were.

“You’ll see! Trust the process,” Neff said.

Discovering The DNA

The eighth graders speculated what the DNA could look like. Some thought they would be able to see its tell-tale double helix shape; others hypothesized the DNA would look like “a worm” and “a bulb of water.” Everyone thought it would be red, like the fruit mixture.

ASR students were able to determine with touch when the solution was cool enough to be redistributed to the waiting class.

Once the cooled solution was passed through a coffee filter at each station, the result departed from everyone’s guess. A white filmy substance sat on top of red liquid. Students lifted the mysterious, slimy mass on a glass rod to examine its form.

“It kind of looks like a booger, but that’s the DNA,” Rachel said to the class.

The eighth graders took their time to observe the new substance they had discovered.

“They’re just now experiencing it,” Rachel told The Newtown Bee. “It’s nice to be able to experience that again.”

Rachel also expressed that it was nice to reconnect with her former science teacher, Neff, for this visit.

DeJulio said that the class did a version of this last year with a smaller number of students, and they have also presented for the local elementary schools.

This was the first visit DeJulio and his students paid this year to another Newtown school, and it comes as a break between presenting at science fairs.

“We’re trying to do this multiple times this year,” said DeJulio.

In a note to The Bee, Neff said her students had “really good feedback” for their guest presenters.

“The kids had fun doing the lab,” Neff said in a note. “I am so proud of how well they did with the whole thing.”

Reporter Noelle Veillette can be reached at noelle@thebee.com.

Visiting applied science research student Lydia Cox, pictured, collects the bags of denaturing strawberries from each group to be heated, then cooled. Once the bags are redistributed, ASR presenter Filippo Formaca demonstrates how to fold the coffee filter to strain the solution. Eighth graders Celia Plaue and Myles Coleman are pictured carefully straining their group’s solution through the filter. Malakai Ortner and Joseph Farrel examine their separated strawberry DNA on a glass rod, which to the class’s surprise, is white. —Bee Photos, Veillette
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