Stafford High School’s Advanced Placement (AP) biology class is among the first in the United States to utilize some advanced technology items in the classroom.
Teacher Camille Merck, the reigning Stafford MSD Secondary Teacher of the Year, applied (and was granted) a Mini PCR and a mini-gel electrophoresis machine from Oct. 30 through Nov. 10.
“To have been selected is a great boon for Stafford High School, especially since we are among the first schools in the entire country to participate, and it gives our students a chance to experience science in a very real way,” Merck said.
The technology that Stafford students used is the same equipment that’s used in the Genes in Space International Competition. PCR machines are used in various labs all around the world to amplify DNA for research purposes.
A PCR machine is very costly. Therefore, most students do not have the opportunity to use one until they are a college junior or senior.
“Gel electrophoresis machines are also rare in high schools, although they are arguably more common than PCR machines,” Merck said. “Gel electrophoresis separates DNA fragments by size, allowing for comparison of DNA obtained from different specimens. The loaner kit that we received has equipment valued at approximately $5,000.”
There was a lengthy process to have the equipment on loan. Merck – who has a master’s degree in biology — had to apply, go through an interview and then pass a test on the equipment. She was invited to speak at a conference in March about her classes’ experience with the equipment.
“We were able to Skype with Dr. Emily Gleason, who shared with us just a little bit about the Genes in Space international competition, the equipment we have been using, and talked about careers related to science,” Merck said. “All of the AP biology students were able to participate in the Skype call, and many of them asked Dr. Gleason questions as they think about possibly pursuing STEAM careers.”
The class has utilized the equipment in multiple ways. They completed a Food Safety Lab, focusing on how PCR could be used to address food safety concerns at the International Space Station as well as in a colony on Mars. They also continued working on restriction digest enzymes and analyze DNA fragments with gel electrophoresis. Data will be graphed and conclusions will be drawn to help students move through the entire scientific investigative process.
“These are real-world/real-life issues that our astronauts and mars colonists could face, making this lab of genuine interest and value to our students,” Merck said.