By Catharin Shepard
Call it CSI: Hoke High.
A man in a lab coat looked around the science stations, each ready and waiting with DNA samples and testing equipment. Someone committed a crime, and it was up to the students in Linda Tyler’s first-year biomedical class to find the culprit the same way professional forensics experts would.
“You’re going to look and see if you can find a match and identify which suspect was the criminal,” education specialist Nicholas Hoffman said to the dozen or so students lining the aisle of the bus.
The Morehead Planetarium and Science Center’s DESTINY bus visited the Hoke County High School campus earlier this month to give students a chance to try their hand at actual scientific research techniques. Hoffman, a science educator with the mobile laboratory program, walked students through the process of using modern equipment to pipe up samples, interpret results and finally solve a crime.
The DNA fingerprinting lab was a great way to expose students to a few of the many available careers in the sciences, Tyler said.
“It gets them hands-on, to learn that there’s more about the medical field than a doctor and a nurse,” she said. “It’s research scientists, it’s forensic scientists, it’s pathologists, immunologists, epidemiologists. People don’t know a lot about what careers are in the medical field because people only know what they see.”
Tyler assisted as Hoffman walked students through the many steps of processing DNA samples using gel electrophoresis to complete a restriction analysis, also called DNA fingerprinting. First, they had to learn how to carefully handle all of the equipment, including the sensitive and expensive digital pipettes.
“Have you seen one before? Where have you seen one before? … If you watch CSI or NCIS, House, Grey’s Anatomy, any of the hospital shows or forensics shows, these are used in labs to measure out DNA samples. They’re used in hospitals to measure out blood and serum samples. They’re used all throughout the biotech industry,” Hoffman explained.
Then it was time to practice how to insert the DNA material into the gel cells. Working with a limited amount of DNA can mean that it’s important to get it right the first time, Hoffman said.
“When you get to your DNA samples, there are no second chances. You can do DNA once, and then you’re done,” he said.
Students spent the rest of the lab piping, examining the results and drawing conclusions based on their testing.
Tyler said she got the idea to invite the bus down for a class session after she heard about it having a successful visit to another school in the area.
“I actually read an article in a newspaper, one of the schools in Fayetteville had them visit, and the kids were just raving about it,” she said.
Hoke High offers biomedical and other classes under the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) label. The school system additionally plans to add more STEM classes if it receives approval and funding to build a third campus for the high school.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill created the DESTINY bus program in 2000. The DESTINY Traveling Science Learning Program serves pre-college teachers and students across the state. DESTINY stands for “Delivering Edge-cutting Science Technology and Internet across North Carolina for Years to come.” The program develops and delivers “standards-based, hands-on science curricula and teacher professional development with a team of educators and a fleet of vehicles that travel throughout the state.”
The program has two 40-foot-long buses, named Destiny and Discovery, equipped as mobile science laboratories. The education outreach is meant to offer students a chance to work with advanced science and technology equipment that they might not otherwise get to experience.