NEW YORK, July 2 - In a lab on the second floor of a nondescript office complex on the outskirts of New York City, some two dozen pre-teens in shorts and sneakers last Thursday got down to the nucleus of summer school. Literally.
The gaggle of fifth and sixth graders, all bony knees and braces, was enrolled in a summer-school workshop sponsored by Cold Spring Harbor Lab and the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Research Institute. The session, dubbed DNA Learning Center West, was designed to give them face time with the goop that makes them tick.
The 2,200-square-foot facility, located near North Shore-LIJ's sprawling campus an hour's drive from Manhattan and Cold Spring Harbor, cost about $450,000 to set up and fill with toys that would make Craig Venter take notice:
For five hours a day for five days the middle-school kids have been put behind the wheel of an Applied Biosystems 310 single-capillary sequencer (donated by a North Shore-LIJ staffer); were shown how to use microfuges and centrifuges; were taught the delicate art of squeezing micropipettes; were taught how to operate a gel-documentation system and an electrophoresis chamber (both made by Bio-Rad); were instructed on using cells to run protein gels; were given the keys to a UV transilluminator (from Fisher Scientific International) and a spectrophotometer (from Eppendorf Scientific); got wet from a shaking water bath; and warmed up beside a wall of incubators.
For a "modest fee" these students were taught to extract DNA, handle genomic material, observe mutations in drosophila and C. elegans, genetically engineer bacteria, and in may in more advanced classes perform DNA fingerprinting, genomic sequencing, PCRs, SNP-analysis, and genotyping, according to Leslie Goodwin, who was in charge of ordering the equipment.
"People say to me, "I can't believe you teach that to fifth graders,'" said Danielle Sixsmith, an instructor from Cold Spring Harbor who teaches some of the summer courses at DNA Learning Center West. "And I say to them, 'You have no idea. They're sponges. They get it. They get DNA because it's simple. It's us who didn't get it in school who find it so abstract.
"These kids come with such different backgrounds," she added. "We have kids who have heard of DNA, who know about it from what they see on TV, some know what DNA stands for, while others have no idea."
With the exception of a teacher-assessment quiz given to students at the start and finish of the workshop, the kids are given no homework and are required to take no tests.
"No pressure," Sixsmith said.
Fun With DNA is actually one of four summer workshops at DNA Learning Center West, itself based on Cold Spring Harbor Lab's popular and long-running Dolan DNA Learning Center. The first course, DNA Science, introduces high-school and college students to the science behind building and analyzing recombinant DNA molecules; the second class, Genomic Biology & PCR, focuses on PCR technology; and the fourth course, World of Enzymes, focuses on biochemistry.
"It's neat because most of them come with an interest in science and they get to share this with others who are there for the very same reason," said Sixsmith. "They don't have to worry about being embarrassed to ask a certain question, because that's exactly why they're there."