Turning them on

A challenging after-school class keeps middle schoolers interested in science

CALS biochemistry professor Hazel Holden is excited about science. So when she witnessed science becoming “boring” in her daughter’s classroom—a feeling several classmates shared—she decided to take matters into her own hands.

Some five years ago she created Project CRYSTAL—Colleagues Researching with Young Scientists, Teaching and Learning—a program designed to challenge middle schoolers who show an aptitude for science. The program is funded by the National Science Foundation.

Each school year, Holden takes four eighthgrade students under her wing for weekly hands-on sessions. “We’re trying to de-stigmatize science by exposing kids to material they otherwise would never have been exposed to,” she says.

And it’s impressive stuff. The students start by extracting DNA from yeast cells they have grown themselves. They then use the extracted DNA to practice the art of polymerase chain reaction (PCR for short), the process by which a piece of DNA is replicated to produce thousands to millions of copies of a targeted DNA sequence.

Switching between 10-minute lecture and lab segments keeps the kids motivated, and with clever anecdotes sprinkled throughout the lecture material, the young students are never bored.

This class format is used to progress to more advanced skills such as protein purification—the isolation of proteins from, in this case, E. coli cells— and X-ray crystallography, a tool used by the students to identify the molecular structure of a crystalline protein. The year ends with a group poster presentation— a rite of passage that most students don’t experience until much later.

“I was able to work in a real lab and gain lab experience. I do not think many 12-year-olds are able to have an experience like that,” says Project CRYSTAL alumna Manpreet Kaur, now a high school senior. “Before the program I did not have any knowledge of X-ray crystallography, and now I am able to explain the process in science classes.”

The program inspired Kaur to take several AP Science classes and affirmed her plans to become a doctor.

Holden has published her curriculum as an 80-page book, and Project CRYSTAL was introduced at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis during the current school year.

The program has benefited graduate students almost as much as the youngsters, giving them experience teaching complex science at the most basic level.

“This class puts our own graduate work in perspective. You get more excited about your own research by watching them get excited about the small things, like pipetting,” reflects biochemistry doctoral student Ari Salinger.

Looking ahead, Holden hopes that what she has created will inspire other universities to implement similar programs.

“The students want to learn more—and they are ready for it,” Holden says.