Learning is in their genes | AspenTimes.com

Learning is in their genes

Aspen High School sophomore Whit Parker conducts a DNA test at the school during an Aspen Science Center session Monday. (Mark Fox/The Aspen Times)

The halls of Aspen High School sat dark and barren, the hordes of students off working summer jobs or just hanging out.But back in the science labs, about a dozen high school students were preparing to analyze their own DNA, which required lots of equipment, patience, saline solution and a mouthful of spit.”What if I swallow it?” said Alayne Kane, a 17-year-old senior. The questionable substance in the test tube was clear as water, but had a certain flavor to it.

A valid question, given that most science teachers are adamant about not putting anything from the lab in your mouth. But instructor David Micklos assured Kane not to fret. Turns out the liquid was just NaCl and H2O – salt water, in layman’s terms. By swishing that solution around in their mouths, the students would be able to trap some of their own DNA.The lesson was one of many weekly sessions the Aspen Science Center offers throughout the summer. The pupils get instruction in specific subject areas, such as DNA and genetics. And the whole week holds a variety of experiments and hands-on lab work so the lessons sink in.The teachers are high-profile: Micklos is taking time from his duties as a researcher at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a nonprofit biology research institute, to show these students the genetic fabric within their spittle.Micklos pointed to a projector screen, showing how a few spins in a centrifuge and a heating and cooling process allows scientists to examine and replicate human DNA. The one strand on the screen, though, was just a small glimpse at a much larger picture.

“It just represents the millions [of DNA strands] in your mouthwash sample,” Micklos said.And while it was reminiscent of an average school day, there wasn’t a student doodling on a notebook or anyone fast asleep, drooling on the desk. Most sat rapt – some for a love of science, others simply because it would make future biology classes easier.”It’s a really hard class, and it’s all memorization of cycles … but there’s also some of this stuff, so that’s why we’re here,” said Alicia Leto, 17. There’s no pressure for her and Kane because they don’t receive grades. They and friend Lauren Lacy, 17, can get a head start to nail those biology classes.”I’m excited, I love it,” Lacy said. Plus, playing with DNA is better than being a working stiff.

“If you think about it, we could either be here or at work,” Lacy said.Kevin Ward, the executive director of the science center, said the DNA experiments would also show kids why modern humans can’t be descended from Neanderthals, among other things. He’s pleased with the hands-on teaching and said even the most reluctant students can get psyched about the lessons once they’re in the classroom.”Once they’re in, you expose them to this amazing caliber of teaching,” Ward said. “It just ignites their enthusiasm.”For more information on the Aspen Science Center and the sessions for kids, grades 5-12, call 925-8525 or visit aspensciencecenter.com.Greg Schreier’s e-mail address is gschreier@aspentimes.com

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