Transforming Middle School Biotechnology Education with STEM

Smith Middle School

In 2016 275 eighth grade students at Smith Middle School completed a STEM biotechnology experience thanks to a generous grant from the PTA Thrift Shop, now CommunityWorx. The grant provided the entire eighth grade class with materials to genetically transform E.coli bacteria to glow in the dark. The lab was the culmination of weeks of research and preparation by the students.

Students started the unit by researching about Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP), including its origins in the North American jellyfish and how it is used by scientists.  After gaining a firm understanding of GFP, students then learned about the major steps necessary to bioengineer E. Coli into glowing E.coli cells, including creation of a plasmid, insertion of the plasmid with GFP into the bacteria cells, selection for transformed bacteria, and growing bacteria cultures. We also wanted our student to understand the real-world applications of creating genetically modified organisms.  We therefore used a virtual lab to compare the techniques we would use in our lab to insert GFP into E.Coli to the process that is used by biotechnology companies to create transgenic crops. Many of my students mentioned that their parents work for Bauer and other biotechnology companies in the Research Triangle Park, and this activity helped validate this important scientific application. Lastly students completed a model lab in which they did each of the steps in the procedure using practice materials and learned about appropriate sterile technique. When the actual lab day came, students had the background knowledge to understand the purpose of each step of the procedure, the skills to successfully carry out the transformation, and pride in their ability to complete a complicated bioengineering task on their own.

We cannot describe how wonderful it is to provide this hands-on lab experience to all our students. Exposure to STEM experiences will hopefully inspire more students to pursue advanced sciences in high school and college. It is also important to give each student the fundamentals about bioengineering that will help them prepare for decisions that they will make in the future in regards to the foods they choose as well as the regulations needed to protect our society.