Summer 2011
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Camp DNA offers biology boot camp for science teachers

camp dna Robin Walker teaches participants to check their DNA preparations.

By Nancy Weiss

The words "summer camp" conjure images of wooded trails and swimming in refreshing pools, but participants in Professor Gerry Berkowitz' Camp DNA trade the outdoors for a laboratory and focus on carefully working with test tubes and biological principles rather than arts and crafts. Camp DNA is a biology boot camp that trains teachers and future teachers in current techniques they can use to excite their students about the wonders of science.

Berkowitz, a professor of horticulture in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture, is deeply committed to educating the public about science, diversifying the people who work as scientists and broadening the impact of scientific projects. His vision and that of the National Science Foundation coincide and led to funding for a program dubbed Camp DNA that is offered for ten days every summer using the facilities at the College's Agricultural Biotechnology Laboratory.

The campers are a group of motivated adults, including high school biology teachers, students from UConn’s Neag School of Education and agricultural education majors. They receive a stipend for their involvement and immerse themselves in experiential learning they can transfer to high school students in a series of lab exercises. 

“The camp changes the paradigm of what can be taught in biology. When I first visited a high school class, they were learning about DNA by cutting out letters and making a daisy chain. Now the same teacher is given a gene and an organism in which the gene is mutated. Students learn how to work with the DNA encoding the gene and also to identify the mutation in the organism,” says Berkowitz.

dna A model of the protein encoded by one of the genes the participants work with. This protein is a subject of research in
Berkowitz’ lab.

The hands-on training, under the direct supervision of Robin Walker, a PhD candidate, and Berkowitz, places participants in teams where they spend full days doing a series of molecular biology laboratory exercises in two areas: DNA manipulation and phenotype analysis.

By the completion of camp, educators have learned the laboratory techniques and subject matter to teach the DNA exercises to high school students. They are provided with a 100-page manual for future reference and lively PowerPoint presentations for use with lectures. 

“Camp DNA gives prospective science teachers a competitive advantage. They are given what they need to order the materials and deliver the programs for high school students in this aspect of molecular biology,” Berkowitz adds. 

The National Science Foundation chose Camp DNA as a program to publicize as one of the highlights of successful and important grant awards. Camp DNA will continue to affect the lives of teachers and students long after summer is over.

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