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Teaching Teachers To Teach Hands-On Genetics

“What did you do in school today?” “Not much. Oh yeah — we identified genes associated with photosynthesis.”

Alabama high-schoolers and their parents may have that dinner-table conversation during the upcoming school year. That’s thanks to graduate students and faculty in the College’s Department of Horticulture who helped organize a hands-on workshop on genomics for high school teachers at Tuskegee University.

The Wisconsin team includes professors Jim Nienhuis and Patrick Krysan and graduate students Michell Sass and Amber Robertson.

During the workshop, held in May, the Wisconsin team presented a seminar called “Gene Chips in the Classroom.” They demonstrated an exercise in which students grow two sets of plants, one in sunlight, the other in the dark. Students then pipette DNA extracted from the plants onto a specially prepared slide known as a gene chip, which is labeled with genes associated with photosynthesis. DNA that is complementary to the genes on the chip will stick to the chip while the remaining DNA is washed away.

The chip gets mailed to the UW-Madison Biotechnology Center, where technicians scan it with a laser scanner and share the resulting image with the students via a commercial website. Patterns of colors on the scan reveal genetic variations that show students which genes are turned on or off when plants are grown with or without light.

The seminar made use of an instructional kit devised by Madison West High School teacher Betsy Barnard. Barnard developed the kit while she was a horticulture graduate student.

The presentation was a great success. The Alabama teachers and Tuskegee staff gave the Wisconsin team an award for delivering the best presentation at the workshop.

This wasn”t the first time the Wisconsin team has taught the gene chip exercise; they”ve shown it to teachers from schools across the nation and several other countries during seminars on the Madison campus. But this is the first time they”ve taken their show on the road.

Their Tuskegee project was funded by the Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment. The endowment”s goal is to enhance biology curricula for students who are traditionally underrepresented in science education.