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Bringing Biology to Life for Middle School Students

Jeannine Huenemann


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Students visit Weber State University's health professional programs.
Middle school students visited health professional programs at Weber State University
GEAR UP students at U.S.U's CRISPR lab.
Students share the results of CRISPR-edited genes that changed colors in bacteria
GEAR UP students at Biology in Life camp.
Forty students from five schools across the state participated in Biology in Life camp

Utah State University STARS! GEAR UP students often spend their summer break learning an impressive array of topics, from how to fly drones and test water quality, to how to transition to high school and be more organized. This year, rising eighth and ninth graders added biology, agriculture, and applied sciences to this list. While at Biology in Life camp, students visited health professional programs at Weber State University, as well as applied agriculture and science labs at USU's Logan campus.

“We had a chance to bring forty students together from five schools to participate in a two-and-a-half-day camp where we looked at anything from lab sciences to emergency medical services, to dental hygiene, to respiratory therapy", said Kristin Brubaker, director of USU STARS! GEAR UP at USU. “We looked at careers within agriculture – for example what it would mean if you really loved horses and just wanted to work with horses for the rest of your life. How they could find careers in these areas, was the focus of this camp.”

Middle school students learned from USU students and recent graduates about synthetic biology and used exciting new CRISPR technology to edit genes that change colors in bacteria. A group of USU students led by A.J. Walters launched BioXperience in 2018, an initiative that brings together students from USU’s College of Science and the College of Engineering. They adapted their studies to teach CRISPR-based tools to younger students. Walters, a Tooele native, is an undergraduate research fellow at USU studying biological engineering with minors in entrepreneurship, Spanish, biology, chemistry, and computer science. The other members of the team, Amanda Moravek, Clark Riddle, Drew Porter, and Makail Lunt, are all biological engineering students or graduates of USU. With their help, kids at camp learned what CRISPR is and what it can do, so that they could make more educated decisions about future career choices. They also talked about ethics and why it is important to understand not only what you are doing, but also the impact of choices made in the lab on people and society.

Hiatt, a student from North Sanpete Middle School described what he did during camp by saying, “We put DNA into cells, and then we added food to it to make them grow more, and then we’re going to use an antibiotic, and that kills all the cells that aren’t real. And then there is going to be one left.” Leo from Mount Logan Middle School added that “It’s supposed to look cool, but it has to sit for 24 hours…. It will be a couple of different colors because we added blue, green, and orange.”

“The kids at camp dug deeply into the science and the ethics of controversial studies,” said Greg Podgorski, associate dean of the College of Science at USU. “When discussing reports of genetically engineered babies, I heard strong and passionate arguments for and against these procedures. It was stunning to realize that these ideas were coming from middle schoolers who had just learned of these developments.”

One of the BioXperience mentors, Makail Lunt, described her college experience as inspiration for the program. She said, “I didn’t figure out that I liked synthetic biology until my senior year of college. By then, it’s like, I was already doing biological engineering, so I was close, but not exactly what I wanted to do. So, I got involved in this group and we started learning a lot more, and that was a turning point for me, so we’re trying to give the students that.” Lunt, a recent USU graduate, now works at BioFire Diagnostics in Salt Lake City UT and volunteered her time at camp. If BioXperience sounds interesting, consider reaching out to A.J. and the team for more information.

Camp wasn’t only about learning science, it was also about making friends, "you meet lots of new kids here,” said Leo. He and Hiatt may live in different parts of the state, but they came together to share a petri dish and have some fun doing obstacle courses and visiting cows, horses, and goats, along with other students, mentors, and chaperones from across Utah, including schools in West Valley City, Ephraim, Logan, Gunnison, and Moroni.