DNA Projects for High School Students

DNA Projects for High School Students
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  • 0:00 Why Teach Using Projects?
  • 1:05 Structure of DNA Projects
  • 2:20 Replication of DNA Projects
  • 3:24 Transcription &…
  • 4:34 DNA Technology & Uses Projects
  • 6:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Esther Bouchillon

Esther has taught middle school and has a master's degree in gifted education.

This article provides several examples of projects related to the study of DNA as well as tips for how to implement them with your high school students. Explore these engaging instructional activities below, including the use of skits and DNA modeling.

Why Teach Using Projects?

When Mr. Charles teaches about the structure and function of DNA he lectures, assigns textbook readings, and gives quizzes. Most of the time, his students are confused and get bad grades. Mr. Crick, on the other hand, explores how DNA works by assigning projects that make students interact with each other and with the content that they are required to learn. The students are excited and engaged with their projects as they show their understanding by earning high grades in the class. Whose class would you rather be in?

Science class can be very intimidating, especially if you are studying things that are too small to see like DNA. Using projects and activities to make science more tangible is one way to help high school students think critically about abstract and difficult concepts. Teaching with projects can be intimidating though. Some tips for success include creating a rubric to grade projects, making a sample to show students before they begin, and having a fellow teacher in a similar content area read over your directions to ensure they are clear.

Structure of DNA Projects

DNA is a tiny molecule made of even tinier parts. High school students need to know that each nucleotide of DNA has a sugar, a phosphate molecule, and a nitrogen base that could be adenine, guanine, cytosine, or thymine. Modeling projects can also be used to help students understand how the molecules fit together. Here are two ideas:

The first idea is a paper class model. Assign each student one gene that has about six base pairs. Some students could be assigned more or less depending on their ability. Give each student paper templates for the parts of DNA. Have the students color, cut out, and assemble a paper model of their gene. When all students are done, attach all of their genes end to end to create one long DNA molecule for the class. Finally, twist it into the famous double helix shape.

The second idea is individual models. This is similar to the class model, but students find and use their own materials to represent each of the parts of their DNA molecule. When students create their own models, it is essential that they include a key explaining what each piece of their model represents. This model of DNA was made with legos.

This is a model of DNA made with legos
DNA model from legos

Replication of DNA Projects

The traditional way to teach DNA replication is to use worksheets and practice problems. Unfortunately, this only teaches the end result instead of the process. Here are some projects that focus on the process of replication. These ideas can also be extended to include other DNA processes.

The first idea is to have your students perform skits. Place students in groups and have them assign each person a role as a molecule involved in DNA replication. The students should write a script and perform a skit demonstrating how different enzymes and molecules are involved in DNA replication.

Another idea is to have students do some creative writing. Some students engage better with creative projects. Have students write a story from the point of view of a molecule of DNA. They should include what the DNA experiences as it is replicated and which molecules it encounters.

Students could create a board game to show their knowledge of DNA replication. They could design the game board to illustrate the process of DNA replication and incorporate quiz questions related to the topic.

Transcription and Translation Projects

High school students are required to know that DNA is used to make proteins that perform different tasks in their bodies. To understand this, they have to understand the processes of transcription and translation. The projects we've discussed so far can be adapted to explore these processes, but here is another idea:

It's called the 'Martian' Activity. This project takes some teacher preparation, but it ties the processes together nicely. Create enough paper DNA sequences for each student to have one. These represent the DNA of a 'Martian'. Color-code each codon of the DNA sequence to represent one gene. Each DNA sequence should have five genes on it: eye color, hair color, skin color, nose size, and mouth size. Also create your own genetic code that is similar to the real code but uses traits like 'red' or 'small' instead of amino acids. Each student must transcribe their gene into RNA, then translate that RNA into the traits of their 'child'. Finally, when the students have determined all of their Martian's traits, have them creatively draw their Martian.

DNA Technology and Uses Projects

With modern advances in DNA technology, it is important that high school students understand how DNA can be used in society. They have probably seen TV shows like CSI or The Maury Show and wonder how DNA fingerprinting is used to catch criminals or identify paternity. They also might know someone with a genetic disorder and may want to know how scientists study such issues. Here are a few project ideas that help to explore these topics:

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