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DNA Barcoding lab ignites a passion in high school, elementary students

Rock Canyon looks to expand innovative biotechnology program next year

HIGHLANDS RANCH - Over the past three years, Rock Canyon teacher Shawndra Fordham and her students have overcome age discrimination, proving that they are capable of handling cutting-edge biotech research.

“We’ve been told so many times that [high school students] can’t learn at this level, that they’re not capable of learning this material, or they’re not capable of doing this lab—and yet they are,” Fordham said.

This winter, however, it wasn’t just high school students proving the critics wrong. Fordham invited sixth-grade students from Jenny Henry’s class at Copper Mesa to come to the high school to participate in a laboratory on DNA Barcoding.

“This lab isn’t even typically done at a high school level. This is a college level lab,” explained Fordham.

While the sixth-graders were a bit shorter than their lab mates and perhaps a tad overwhelmed by the experience at times, they fit right in. After learning a little bit of lab etiquette, they were hard at work, gathering DNA samples.

“Some people would say, ‘sixth graders can’t do this,’ and their response is, ‘well, why not?’  It wouldn’t even occur to them that they couldn’t do it, because when those barriers aren’t there, they thrive,” Henry said.

“I think people tend to rise and fall to the expectations we have of them. When we have high expectations of our kids and we expect them to behave certain ways, they live up to them. This lab is a perfect example of that,” explained Copper Mesa Elementary parent Laurie McCall. “They were all doing what they needed to do and they were all doing their work. They were focused. They were excited to be doing it. It was awesome.”

Fordham, who is a Shell Award finalist for the second year in a row, says she did not lower her expectations for the students one iota.

“I told Ms. Henry, ‘your kids need to learn everything there is about DNA. They need to understand barcoding.’ I don’t even think DNA is even taught to kids at their grade-level yet,” Fordham explained. “The kids knew maybe even more than my kids did coming in. They learned everything they could, because they were excited.”

While the high school students were available to support the elementary students, helping them learn about lab protocol and the equipment, the sixth-graders completed the lab on their own.

“Carly [Banham] and I did it on our own this time, without any help,” Copper Mesa sixth-grade student Kayla Ybarra said.

“We were fortunate enough to do it in high school, but for them to do it in sixth-grade? It is amazing,” said Rock Canyon senior Cody Gardella. “It has been really fun. It has been great to see how much they know. I was actually surprised about how well they did.”

“It was like they had been doing it for years,” added Rock Canyon senior Michael Phelps. “It was pretty incredible.”

The goal of the lab is to provide an authentic learning experience for the students--  one in which they have say in what they are studying.

Both the elementary and high school students, had the opportunity to choose their focus. Some, like Phelps and Gardella, chose to collect samples from the community. They are hoping to see if there is a difference in the type of fish used in different qualities of sushi. Meanwhile Banham, Ybarra and their high school cohorts, contacted the Denver Botanic Gardens and obtained samples of previously unidentified plants.

After extracting the DNA, the material was submitted to a lab, which assigns a colored barcode. This barcode, which was brought to the attention of the scientific community in a paper published by the University of Guelph in 2003, is much like a UPC symbol used to identify different items at a supermarket. In this case, however, the pattern represents the sample’s genes.

According to the International Barcode of Life website (, the code can help identify species, using a short section of DNA from the genome.

“More than anything I hope that my kids leave these kind of experiences and my classroom and they feel empowered and they feel important and they feel like they get to make a difference,” Henry said.

While the students have not yet graduated high school and in some cases elementary school, they will be publishing their work. If they have found a new species, their name will be forever associated with the discovery.

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I know I’ll get to remember this for the rest of my entire life,” Ybarra said.

Due to the success of these type of experiments, Rock Canyon’s biotechnology program is growing. Next year, Forham will be offering a concurrent enrollment class that will allow students an independent study opportunity.

Like real researchers, the teens will lead their own research from coming up with an idea to finding funding to publishing the results.

“They get a chance to try being a researcher and see if this is something they really want to do,” Fordham said.

The new course will have opportunity to guide the students’ future and change their lives, according to Fordham.

“I think it is awesome. These are more chances and opportunities they have to get their hands wet and to really take charge of their own learning. They get to figure out, ‘this isn’t something I want’ or ‘I really love this,’” Fordham said. “This will lead to internships and research opportunities when they go to college, which will lead to them getting the best masters program, which leads to the best doctoral program. So, it could open up so many doors for these kids.”

February 17, 2015 | By rmbarber | Category: High School Education, Schools

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