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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

UC Davis program allows high school students to study biotechnology

Imagine learning how to navigate a virtual lab to splice a gene and extract DNA, then putting these newly acquired skills to real life use in a high school classroom equipped with top-notch lab equipment.

Thanks to the UC Davis Partnership for Plant Genomics program and Biotechnology Kit Loan Program, high school students throughout the nation are able to use game-based software to acquire biotechnology skills. Students in the greater Sacramento area are able to put these skills to use with equipment on loan from UC Davis.

“The Loan Program enables schools to offer temporary laboratory curricula [even if they] cannot afford it,” said David Gilchrist, UC Davis plant pathology professor and director of partnership for plant genomics education. “Equipment can run between $18,000 to $20,000.”

Biotechnology Kits are available for loan for two-week periods to schools in the Sacramento area stretching from Marysville to Vacaville. Training programs are available to teachers in the summer, and depending on subject, vary in length from a week for national conferences to three days for basic training to one to three days for lab kit training.

An integral part of the program is offering continual help to the teachers, said Barbara Soots, the Education Coordinator for the Partnership for Pant Genomics Education and one of the training program teachers who also developed the game-based software.

“It is important not to just train the teachers once, but to offer consistent contact and ongoing support to the teachers,” she said. “They need to come back every summer to be retrained.”

Technology is an important tool in ensuring that changes to the program are available to a widespread audience. Updates can be easily made online, and are available for download online for free once a teacher is registered in the program.

The software program takes about 45 minutes to complete and offers pre- and post-tests. The first software was a virtual DNA fingerprinting lab and the newest software completed this summer offers a six-episode virtual plant biotechnology and genomics lab where students can extract DNA and make a genetically modified plant.

Since its inception in 1996, the software has reached 5,000 registered school sites and the Kit Loan Program serves 50 teachers in 31 schools reaching over 30,000 students.

Kevin Scully teaches biotechnology lab and biomanufacturing at Rodriguez High School in Fairfield, and has been in the UC Davis Kit Loan Program for several years.

“This is a very effective program, bringing equipment teachers just don’t have access to,” he said. “Part of the deal with educating students is to get them engaged and excited, and biotechnology can really do that. Their attitude changes when you give them a pipette.”

The program was first conceived in 1992 when the National Science Foundation presented a $10 million research grant to the UC Davis Science and Technology Center for 10 years. A group of experts and educators including Gilchrist was mandated to come up with an outreach program for minorities that was distinct from anything else UC Davis had done.

“Biotechnology came out in 1981 with much controversy,” Gilchrist said. “We thought this was the best opportunity in bringing this type of education in high schools to interest students [in biotechnology] as a career and make students better informed as voters of tomorrow.”

With video games rapidly increasing in popularity among youth, it was clear that an interactive learning environment was the best way to combine education with interest, Gilchrist said.

“This allows the students to see the link between work they see and conceptualize as science in the real world and what they actually experience in the classroom; that is a positive step to bridge that gap which can’t be understated,” Scully said.

The program is funded by the National Science Foundation, the Genentech Foundation for Biotechnological Sciences, the UC Davis Office of Research and the UC Davis College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences. Currently, the program is seeking more funding as other financial sources are ending.

Michele Parisi, media consultant for Genentech Foundation, has been working with UC Davis to increase visibility of the program and seek financial support.

“There are so many benefits of this program: it provides tremendous community service,” she said. “It is a terrific example of how a world class academic institution has transferred all this expertise and knowledge and made it relevant and valuable to the community.”

 

WENDY WANG can be reached at campus@californiaaggie.com.

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