Pitt Mobile Laboratory Comes to JWPMS

Posted on May 28, 2013, in Academics

The University of Pittsburgh’s mobile laboratory was at James W. Parker Middle School last week to conduct a DNA Strawberry Caper with the school’s sixth grade students.

Students were immersed in a scenario where they were required to investigate a patent infringement claim made against and organic strawberry grower by a large commercial company. Using critical analysis and inquiry-based thinking combined with phenotypic analysis, DNA extraction, PCR and gel electrophoresis, all concepts in their science curriculum, the students figured out which farmer was telling the truth.

“These students are learning concepts in middle school that I didn’t even learn until college,” said Dr. Becky Gonda, the Middle School Outreach Coordinator for the University of Pittsburgh Mobile Labs.

The students use current biotechnology equipment to investigate if the DNA of the two different farms matched up. By Friday, the last day of the weeklong curriculum, the students solved the case.

“They don’t realize this year, but the work they are doing here can be applied to a bunch of different things,” Dr. Gonda said. “This is the same stuff the FBI does in crime scenes. The students here may be using strawberries, but the molecular stuff is all the same.”

The Mobile Lab is a self-contained, traveling laboratory that allows students to use current, high-end equipment to perform laboratory investigations. This program is the latest exciting addition to a K-12 science education outreach effort sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh Department of Biological Sciences. The lab reaches more than 33,000 local students sprawled across four different counties. General McLane School District is the only District in Erie that uses the mobile laboratory program.

The program is sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh Department of Biological Sciences, the University of Pittsburgh Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute, The Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse, The Lyceum Group, Thermo Fisher, and Pittsburgh Tissue Engineering Initiative.

This is the program’s fourth year at General McLane School District – the second year for the Strawberry Caper Curriculum. Middle School Science teacher Stephen Macfarlane discovered the program while doing coursework at the University of Pittsburgh.

“The program was inherently interesting because of the ‘real-life’ biology applications that it presented The students study cell biology and genetics for a large portion of the year and this Strawberry Caper experience gives them a chance to apply what they learned to an intellectual property patent case which is based on an actual court case,” Macfarlane said. “When I brought the idea to Jason Buto and the sixth grade teachers they immediately saw application within their classrooms and the cross-curricular week of strawberry biology related activities was born. How much better can it get than that?”

According to Macfarlane, the response from the students, parents and community has been impressive. Each year the incoming sixth graders look forward to seeing Mobile Lab at the end of the year.