Traveling biochemistry lab filling need for area high school teachers

PLAINVIEW – One of D’Lee Powell’s favorite activities with her Advanced Placement and Pre-AP biology classes is the murder mystery lesson. During it, her students are presented with a fictitious murder scene in which they collect evidence, analyze it and solve the crime – all using science.

But without the use of the traveling biochemistry lab from the Wayland Baptist University science department, the lesson would not be as exciting for the Plainview High School class or their teacher.

“This is just a wonderful program, because we don’t have this kind of technology here,” said Powell, a science teacher at PHS who has about 160 students using the lab annually. “For the TAKS test, it’s awesome, because it really reinforces those concepts.”

A 2000 Wayland graduate, Powell said she first learned of the lab a few years ago while taking the Academic Summer Science Institute for Secondary Teachers (ASSIST) courses at Wayland during the summer. She learned how to do electrophoresis using the lab equipment and how to incorporate that lab into her own classroom.

Then she learned that Wayland had assembled a traveling lab with all the equipment and supplies needed to replicate the same lab she learned. She jumped at the chance to tap that resource and expand the experiences of her own students.

The lab comes with enough electrophoresis chambers for a class, micropipettors and all the necessary supplies to create the gels to insert the DNA samples. When supplies run low, Wayland refills the kit for the next user.

According to Dr. Adam Reinhart, assistant professor of biological and physical sciences at Wayland, the traveling lab kit came about in 2003 thanks to funding from the Teacher Quality Grants sponsored by the state Higher Education Coordinating Board. The annual grant funds the ASSIST program as a whole, and the Wayland professors specifically asked for extra funding to create the traveling lab.

“This is a good example of a longtime effect of a program done years ago,” Reinhart said. “To be able to do this kind of DNA analysis, you either need all the equipment or nothing. It takes $4,-000 to $5,000 to get into it.”

Most schools don’t have those kind of funding resources for one class, so the schools simply do the lessons without the labs. With the traveling lab from Wayland, though, the hands-on element is possible.

J.C. King, a science teacher at Lockney High School and a 1999 WBU graduate, has been using the kit for several years with his AP biology class, ever since he took Reinhart’s biochemistry class as part of the ASSIST program.

“We were trained on the equipment that summer, and the faculty has been very helpful to work with us since then,” King said. “It would be difficult budget-wise to get this here, but also having the support of WBU faculty to fall back on is probably worth much more than that.”

King said his classes use the electrophoresis kits to determine structure of bacterial DNA. He feels the benefit to his students is the hands-on exposure to higher level chemistry experiments that will prepare them for college.

“For some, it’s been an exciting thing because in a small town they don’t always have a grasp on all the things that are out there,” he said. “The more we can expose them to more aspects of science – giving them a few more glimpses – it opens their eyes a little more.”

Powell agrees, saying she uses the lesson to open a discussion about careers in science using the same technology the students have learned and what people are doing in the world of science and research. She also is able to emphasize the sensitivity of scientific experiments and the importance of lab techniques, safety and measuring.

“It shows them exactly what those processes are that scientists go through. It’s useful and new technology these kids normally wouldn’t see,” she said.

The lesson really brings home to students the scope of science.

“Watching shows like CSI, you can’t really appreciate the science they use, with their lightning-fast computers,” said Deniz Yildiz, a junior in AP Biology at Plainview High. “But breaking it down with the equipment Wayland provides, we can see the scientific process in action.”