By Claire Duff, Antje Grotz & Vibe Nylander
The take home message from British Science Week 2017 at Headington Preparatory School? DNA is stuff – and it is important stuff.
A group of researchers from the Gloyn and McCarthy Teams based jointly at the Oxford Centre for Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism (OCDEM) and the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics (WTCHG), visited Headington Preparatory School as part of activities organised for the school’s Science Week, an event co-organised with Brian Mackenwells, the Public Engagement Officer at WTCHG. Throughout the day, researchers introduced children aged 3-11 to DNA (why it’s cool, fun and important for our wellbeing); and talked about food and exercise (how we need the right type and amount of food, and how exercise can help us stay healthy).
Girls from year 6 (ages 10-11) were quizzed on how much energy is in carrots, Frosties and pizza (10% of your daily energy requirement in just one slice) – and how much you need to sleep (8 hours for 1 slice of pizza) or exercise (30 min for 1 slice of pizza) to use all this energy.
A very special workshop was planned for the year 3 girls (aged 7-8) in the school lab: DNA extraction from strawberries. After being equipped with lab coats and safety goggles, the exciting practical part started. Smashing the strawberries to break up the cells and release the DNA created a lot of excitement (and was fortunately not as messy as expected). Finally, the girls were really surprised and thrilled when the DNA became visible (with a little help from the DNA extraction mix) and every girl got her own small tube with extracted strawberry DNA to take it home.
The nursery and reception girls (aged 3-5) were introduced to Boris the beta cell, and his friends Doris the delta cell and Annie the alpha cell. They were really keen on making their own cell, with the help of flower shaped stickers in different colours to build different parts of the cell. All of the cells looked terrific (many cells had extraordinary features such as several nuclei) and together, the girls formed a classic human islet by holding up their self-made cells. In the end, we were even able to attract the attention of the nursery’s resident guinea pig with one of our plush Boris toys.
The next session was with year 2 (aged 6-7) who were amazed to find out that the DNA in their body could stretch to the moon and back. The children were confidently able to identify that animals were alive but rocks were not. There was more confusion over plants, and a picture of a tomato caused debate as it was declared alive “because it rolls”. However, the girls were quick learners and soon understood that all living things (including tomatoes) contain DNA, which is comprised of four nucleotides that pair in a specific way. The girls then had a great time making a bracelet version of a DNA helix, with each bead of the bracelet representing a different nucleotide.
We also had a tree of inheritance, where children could place sticky leaves on particular branches, by answering 3 simple questions which represented genetically determined traits: can you roll your tongue, does your hairline form a widow’s peak and are your earlobes attached? The tree was a great way to visually represent the different patterns of inheritance within the class, and the results showed that the least common combination was to be able to roll your tongue, have attached earlobes and no widow’s peak.
After a full day of science fun, the girls correctly stated that ‘DNA was important stuff’ and the researchers returned to their laboratories, exhausted but with a sense of satisfaction that the day had inspired young minds to question the world around them.