Give a little girl a microscope and watch her learn.

Patricia Abad, who describes herself as “a Montclair mom, cell and molecular biologist,” recently led a series of activities for children to learn about DNA. The “Hands On DNA” workshop took place in a rainy Edgemont Park in mid-June, hosted by the Montclair Society of Engineers. Abad moved to Montclair with her husband and two children less than a year ago. While looking for a robotics program for her 5-year-old daughter, she came across the Montclair Society of Engineers and met MSE’s president, Tom Conlon.

 Founded in 1924, MSE is an association of people in all disciplines of the engineering and scientific professions. It meets on the third Friday of the month at Union Congregational Church; the public is invited.

Abad sent Montclair Local a narrative of the event.

Sometimes, all it takes is two people thinking alike and getting connected at the right time for something great to happen. That’s exactly how the hands-on DNA workshop in Edgemont Park on Saturday June 17 — sponsored by the Montclair Society of Engineers — came to be. It was a rainy day, but that didn’t stop anyone who attended from having a lot of fun! ...

When Tom Conlon, MSE’s president, learned that I was a cell and molecular biologist he explained his own interest in bringing more biology topics to MSE. I had been wondering if there would be interest in doing scientific activities for kids. I’ve always enjoyed teaching, mentoring, tutoring and have become very interested in education and how to get children excited about science. I taught a science enrichment class at my daughter’s school this spring and it was so much fun that I really wanted to do more of that with children in town.

Tom and I just connected at the right time. The initial interest in doing more science for kids quickly evolved into “How about a talk in April and workshop on DNA later on?” and “How about at the park?” and “Yes! We could call it Science in the Park!” We thought of Edgemont park because it is such a familiar playground, and next thing we knew, we were getting a permit from the town and going over details of which protocols to run to extract DNA from strawberries, from human mouth cells, and what other hands-on activities we could do for children to grasp concepts of DNA structure and DNA sequence.


Learning by doing

It is so important for children to learn by doing. Not just for children, that’s how we all learn. If we engage in a hands-on activity, we will remember. DNA is a double stranded coil or double helix, sort of a twisted ladder. A great way for children to see this was by building a 3D DNA model. And how could we go wrong with Twizzlers and colored mini marshmallows? In the model, the Twizzlers were forming the sides of the ladder (the sugar and phosphate backbone), while toothpicks and colored mini marshmallows formed the rungs of the ladder -what corresponds to the bases that constitute our DNA (genetic) sequence. Marshmallows had one of four colors, each corresponding to one of the four bases (A=Adenine, T=Thymine, C=Cytosine and G=Guanine). Since DNA is a double strand, there are two bases on each rung, one corresponding to each strand. Bases do not pair randomly. A pairs with T and C with G, unless an error is introduced which, if not corrected in a cell, it will lead to a mutation. While building their edible DNA model, children were pairing bases as we would find in nature, in the A-T and C-G manner.

To further understand DNA sequence and how bases are paired, children also made DNA sequence bracelets. They could select a sequence corresponding to a portion of a gene from one of several species, including butterfly, human, chimpanzee, Madagascar hissing cockroach, among others. Using colored beads, each a different color for A, T, C, G children had to copy the sequence for the selected species on one of the sides of the bracelet (one DNA strand). Then, matching bases in the A-T and C-G manner, children built the complementary sequence, corresponding to the other DNA strand.

Children could extract DNA from strawberries, and from their human mouth cells, from a mouth swish. It was fascinating to see children show the strawberry DNA they had extracted with their own hands, on a stick, and the excitement on their face. And, speaking of face, if kids (or adults) wanted to get a DNA molecule painted on their face or arm, they could!

The interest was just wonderful. Forty children registered from Nishuane, Hillside, Bradford, Northeast, Watchung, Edgemont, and other local and out of town schools (Bloomfield, Parsippany), with their parent or adult.

Despite the weather, which was unpredictable till very close to the start of the workshop, fortunately at least 35 children were able to attend and it seemed they didn’t notice the rain.

It has been really great to work with Tom, and I loved planning the event, running the activities and just feeling the energy we had at the event. Tom and I were really thrilled about having this wonderful experience with children and hope to do more in the future, so stay tuned.

—Submitted by Patricia Abad

Patricia Abad, Ph.D., has advanced degrees in cell and molecular biology from the department of basic medical sciences at Purdue University.