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Hands-On DNA Labs Aim to Energize High School Science Interest


University of California at San Diego researchers are teaching local high school students and their teachers about the latest discoveries in bioscience. KPBS Education Reporter Ana Tintocalis has more on the innovative program called Bio Bridge. 

It's Saturday morning and a bunch of high school students are hanging out at Castle Park High School in Chula Vista. But they're not serving detention or gathering for a weekend field trip. These teens are here for UC San Diego's Bio Bridge Program.

The goal here is to expose students to the latest biological research and techniques. UCSD's Loren Thompson says Bio Bridge gives high schools students what they can't get from their 10-year-old textbooks.

Thompson: We think that's one of the big reasons students don't get excited about pursuing careers in science. What they're studying is already basically obsolete.

To get them up to speed, Bio Bridge scientists are here to share their genetic research techniques with teachers, and the teachers' hand-picked assistants. These assistants are the kids who do well in their classes and are eager to learn more about science. Sixteen year old Ricardo Pimentel is one of them. He says being involved makes them feel grown up.  

Pimentel: It’s something we feel that only adults can do, but now we can do them. It makes us feel, I guess special.

At eight benches in the school's science lab, Ricardo and the other students use plastic sticks and cotton swabs to pick up microscopic bacteria from Petri dishes. The students are trying to genetically alter a strain of bacteria by injecting it with DNA taken from jellyfish. If they're successful, the bacteria will turn into glowing florescent proteins. Bio Bridge director Jermey Babendure.

Babendure: If you had a restaurant and you turn off the lights, how are you going to track where all the employees are going? Where is your server, where are your cooks? But if you give them a glow stick you can actually track them in the dark and see where they're going. And so, in a cell,  there's millions of processes going but we can actually light up a part of it.

Babendure says UCSD scientists use the same genetic research techniques to produce insulin and growth hormones. Teachers say these innovative experiments will get more kids interested in science and better prepared for college. Plus, the science teachers are happy to get all the support…and the materials that come with the experiment. Mike Sixtus is a Bonita High School teacher.

Sixtus: We wound up with a science budget of $180 per class that you teach. A regular microscope costs about $250.

After these Saturday training sessions, the teachers and their student assistants will perform this experiment during the week with the rest of the class. Right now the Sweetwater school district is primary partner in the Bio Bridge Program. UCSD's Thompson says the program focuses on Sweetwater because it has a large number of disadvantaged students. Thompson says he's gratified with the results.

Thompson: Its exciting, its fun to watch these kids come in here they don't know what is going to happen. But they're not sure Saturday morning is a morning they really want to be away from home. And then they get excited about this stuff. And pretty soon man, they’ve forgotten it’s Saturday. They've forgotten what they're missing. They're in here doping science and they love it. 

Thompson says look for the program to expand to other local school districts in San Diego County. He says additional schools and teachers are being added to the program every month.

Ana Tintocalis, KPBS News.

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