Today I visited with four of the Polk County High School biology classes. During the early morning period I talked to one of Jennifer’s biology classes and gave them some insights as to what it’s like to be a biologist at a major university. During fourth period I talked to two classes at the same time, and then again with the biotechnology class during the last period of the day. The students were very respectful and asked some great questions.

Jennifer has her teacher work period in the morning and she spent that time today working on the biotech course prep. She wanted to replicate the students’ optimization experiments, but to run them at a higher annealing temperature. The first thing she did was to run the gels from yesterday’s experiments.

She used the dry ethidum bromide stain to visualize the results.

While the gels were staining, she did the set-up for the PCR optimization using the higher annealing temperature.

We used that time to chat about analysis software, reagent supplies, ways to streamline the students’ workflow, and ideas for future collaboration. While we were talking this trophy display caught my eye, as did the poster for “My science homework ate my dog.” The trophies are from previous science olympiads where her students did very well.

“Hmmmmm, how do I program this thermocycler?????” It’s like riding a bicycle – it all comes back in a flash.

Yesterday’s experiments had mixed results. Some of the reactions show smears in the lanes, which means that more optimization is required. Others didn’t work so well, but I can think of lots of reasons that might be the case – especially given how much fun the guys were having all through class time.

During the biotech class period the students first loaded the morning’s experiments onto gels. While I was talking to them about my work as a biologist, the gels were running.

This is obviously a task that requires some cheerleading…

Everyone takes a turn at loading the gel, which is excellent practice.

I think the students enjoy this part of the course – a lot!

The students do very well at loading gels. I really hope they start getting some good PCR results in the next week before the end of the term so the gels become a big adventure for them. I always look forward to seeing what’s on a gel after an experiment. If things work right, there’s reason to celebrate. If the experiment fails, there’s the fun of troubleshooting to figure out what might have gone wrong.

I really enjoyed my visit to Polk County High School. I am encouraged to see high school students being taught about biotechnology, and it’s great to see that this is going on in rural North Carolina. Biotechnology is a very lucrative field already, but it will continue to grow in the future – especially with all the rapid technology development that is being transferred from academia to industry.

I still find it pretty amazing that high school students are using PCR in the classroom. I’ll sound like an old fart, but I remember the good old days when we had to do so much more work to produce results that these students can obtain with an afternoon’s effort. If you consider how far we’ve come as a field of science in just the past 20 years with the advance of computer hardware, PCR, machine automation of molecular methods, bioinformatics, technology transfer from the human genome project, software development, etc., it will be fun to see what the next 20 years have in store for us. These students are our future and we invest in that future by giving them a relevant education.