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Dublin High School’s Janet Kaehms Launches Biology With Research Class

September 28, 2011

Janet Kaehms with Dublin High students recently met with Dublin High School science teacher Janet Kaehms about the innovative new course “Biology With Research”, launched this year at Dublin High. The course makes real-world scientific research the cornerstone of the course, with students contributing to the Barcode of Life project as well as participating in the annual Alameda County Science and Engineering Fair. Dublin High students have responded with enthusiasm during the first few weeks of the new school year. What sets your Biology With Research class apart from regular college prep Biology courses?

Janet Kaehms: My Biology With Research class is designed to cover the California state Biology standards while letting students participate in original  research in a supervised manner. I use lab activities as a vehicle for my teaching rather than as a capstone activity. As a class we spend time learning about what makes good scientific research, how to troubleshoot our research activities and how to communicate our results clearly. Students then apply this knowledge repeatedly to a variety of topics and projects as they learn Biology content standards. Describe the original research students complete in your Biology With Research class.

Kaehms: My students do original research in two ways.  Beginning this academic year, my students will have the unique opportunity to participate in the International Barcode of Life project. An often underappreciated fact is that our current knowledge of biodiversity is so incomplete that we are at risk of losing species before they can be discovered. Of the estimated 10 million species on the planet, it has taken over 250 years to describe less than 20% using traditional methods.

To more rapidly catalog Earth’s biological diversity, scientists within an emerging global community are now participating in a landmark international effort, the Barcode of Life Initiative, which seeks to create a digital genetic registry of Earth’s plants, animals, fungi, and protists using short, standardized DNA sequences (or barcodes) that uniquely identify species groups in much the same way that Universal Product Codes identify consumer products.

The process of building these genetic identification records begins by isolating DNA from a known biological specimen followed by the amplification of a 650 base pair region of the mitochondrial barcoding gene (cytochrome c oxidase I; COI). This sequence, which constitutes the specimen’s barcode, is then electronically submitted to the Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLD). This data system is open to the public and used by researchers worldwide.  Dublin High students will conduct all of the genetic work themselves and use a suite of bioinformatics tools to edit and upload their own sequence data.

Once reviewed for accuracy, Dublin High student data will be submitted to the National Center for Biotechnology Information / GenBank and its mirror sites at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory and the DNA Data Bank of Japan. My students will be appropriately cited as authors for their submission of genetic data to these widely utilized scientific resources. In short Dublin High School students will be published citizen scientists!

This is a very exciting way to get my students involved in real research with lasting global significance.  In addition to addressing basic issues in taxonomy research, the genetic information contained in this electronic repository is already proving to be a valuable tool to address a variety of important applied environmental problems including the protection of endangered species, water quality monitoring, controlling agricultural pests, identifying disease-causing organisms, and sustaining natural resources. This opportunity is provided by Coastal Marine Biolabs through a grant funded by the National Science Foundation.

The second way my students participate in original research is to  conduct research of  their own design on a different topic and participate in the Alameda County Science and Engineering Fair. This exposes students to the research ideas of their peers while they are introduced to the scientific community. Why have students do research?

Kaehms: The main goals of structuring a class like this are to increase students’ scientific and technological literacy, to connect them to contemporary concepts, key technological cornerstones, and engaging applications of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. This will help students understand the process of scientific inquiry and help better prepare them for college-level scientific studies. Participating in meaningful research engages students at a much deeper level, increasing learning. What other courses at Dublin High School offer these sort of research opportunities?

Kaehms: In the Introduction to Biotechnology course students participate in a national study to document the prevalence of symbiotic bacteria in local insect populations. Wolbachia is a genus of bacteria that infects arthropod species, including approximately 60% of all insects. The Wolbachia bacteria cause a variety of changes in the insects they infect. Most of the changes have to do with mating. These changes are affecting insect populations,  causing dramatic differences in a relatively short period  of time.

Through their participation in the Wolbachia Project, my students collect local insects, identify them, extract their DNA,  amplify a short sequence of the DNA to see if the Wolbachia DNA is present in the sample, and then report their findings to the national study center. The Wolbachia project is sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole.

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