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DNA Activities for Elementary School

Instructor: Rachel Tustin

Dr. Rachel Tustin has a PhD in Education focusing on Educational Technology, a Masters in English, and a BS in Marine Science. She has taught in K-12 for more than 15 years, and higher education for ten years.

DNA can be an abstract concept for elementary students to understand because they can't always see it with their eyes. However, there are some funny, and sometimes messy, ways to make DNA real to your students.

Marshmallow DNA

One challenging concept for students to understand is that DNA is a three-dimensional object. It is challenging to students for a lot of reasons. First, it is microscopic and impossible to see with the naked eye. Second, it is based on concepts in chemistry that can be challenging for an adult to understand, let alone an elementary student. One way to help students to visualize DNA is to have them construct a marshmallow model.

Materials:

  • fruity colored marshmallows (yellow, green, orange, pink) - open the bag a day early, so they are nice and dry. Drying them out makes them less sticky to handle.
  • toothpicks
  • Twizzlers
  • Copy Paper

Directions:

  • Explain to students that their whole body is programmed by chemicals that hold their DNA together. Based on the pattern those chemicals fall in, they determine all kinds of traits about the human body from hair color to the shape of your ears.
  • Explain that DNA molecule in their cells is made up of four chemicals Adenine (A), Thymine (T), Cytosine (C), and Guanine (G). For our purposes, Adenine will be the pink marshmallows, Thymine will be orange, Cytosine will be yellow, and Guanine green.
  • Give students a specific sequence of DNA (A, T, G, C) to map out such as ATGCRGCA. Have them write it out with some space between each letter on a piece of white copy paper. Explain that this pattern of chemicals makes up one side of their DNA.
  • On top of each letter, have students lay the marshmallow in the corresponding color.
  • Now explain to students that each chemical in their DNA (A, T, G, C) pairs up in a specific way. Adenine bonds with Thymine, and Guanine bonds with Cytosine.
  • Have students write the corresponding letter for each chemical beside the ones they already wrote for their gene sequence on the paper. So every 'A' needs a 'T' next to it, and every 'T' needs an 'A' next to. Have students repeat the same process for 'C' and 'G.'
  • Now that students have the second part of their DNA written out, explain that this is the other side of their DNA molecule.
  • Have students lay the correct color marshmallow on top of each letter.
  • Have students stick each pair of marshmallows together with a toothpick. Remind them to keep them in the correct order!
  • Using toothpicks, have students use the Twizzlers to form each side of the double helix that is DNA.

Sample DNA Model

Strawberry DNA Extraction

When you first start talking to elementary students, they will probably tell you DNA isn't real. They have a hard time understanding out something they can't see with their eyes. So prove it to them by showing them how to extract DNA from strawberries!

Materials:

  • three strawberries per group
  • rubbing alcohol (chilled in the freezer ahead of time)
  • funnel (one per group)
  • cheesecloth
  • Extraction liquid: a mixture a half teaspoon of salt, a tablespoon of handwashing dish soap, and one-third cup of water. This will be enough for 1-2 groups. You can double or triple the mixture if your entire class is doing it.
  • measuring spoons
  • measuring cups
  • sandwich bag (one per group)
  • toothpicks
  • baby food jar (per group)
  • quart jar or clear glass of similar size (per group)

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