DNA & RNA Activities for High 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.

In the classroom, teaching topics relating to DNA and RNA can be tedious to students. However, if you break it down into smaller steps of the process, you can make it hands-on and tangible to students.

Teaching DNA/RNA Relationship

When teaching about DNA and RNA, the best place to start is at the beginning. Don't overwhelm students with transcription, translation and applications in a single lesson. Instead, these lessons build upon each other to make the entire process easy for students to grasp.

Transcription and mRNA

Just like DNA, RNA is a long molecule made up of nucleotides. However, without RNA our cells would never be able to make the useful proteins they need to function. While our cells do it automatically, our students need practice to grasp the process.


  • Multiple pieces that represent adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine, copied on yellow paper
  • Multiple pieces that represent adenine, guanine, cytosine, and uracil, copied on pink paper
  • plastic sandwich bags
  • glue sticks
  • cards with prepared gene sequences on them


  • Have students cut out the pieces ahead of the activity and store them in plastic sandwich bags.
  • Begin by giving each group a card with a specific 'gene' sequence to build from their yellow pieces, such as 'ATCGAGCTA'. Have them glue it along one edge of a piece of paper.
  • Explain that for DNA to be able to form proteins, it has to go through several steps. The first step is to form messenger RNA, known as mRNA. For DNA to form, a special enzyme called RNA polymerase attaches to specific points in the DNA molecule and separates the two strands of the double helix and synthesizes an mRNA strand that is complementary to one strand of the DNA.
  • Remind students that while the bonds that hold the separate strands together are strong covalent bonds, the base pairing between strands occurs using hydrogen bonds. These bonds make the bonds easy to form and break during the transcription process.
  • Review with students how the complementary mRNA stand forms. The nitrogenous bases in DNA are transcribed into a complementary sequence in mRNA. Where there is an adenine in DNA, there is a Uracil in the mRNA. Otherwise, the transcription follows the same pattern as a normal DNA would use to copy itself. Guanine pairs with cytosine and vice versa. Thymine pairs with adenine to form the mRNA molecule.

DNA and mRNA bases

  • Have students follow these rules and use their pieces to lay out and glue down their mRNA molecule.
  • With the class, discuss how the process is called transcription. In this process, the molecule of DNA (or in this case a single gene) is transferred into a single strand of mRNA.
  • Have each group present to the class and share how they arrived from their gene to their mRNA strand.

Translating mRNA into Proteins

To finally form the proteins in the ribosomes of cells requires both mRNA and tRNA. The mRNA is made up of 'codons', which consist of a sequence of three bases in a particular order. The transfer RNA (tRNA) free-floats in the ribosome of a cell along with the amino acids. Working together, they form proteins in cells.


  • pink cards labeled with each of the amino acids that will form the polypeptide chain
  • yellow cards with different sequences of mRNA (at least one different one per group)
  • white letter cards for all the bases in an mRNA sequence
  • toothpicks


  • Provide each group a sequence for mRNA using the yellow cards. If you like, for practice, you can provide each group with the sequence of a particular gene and have them use that to create the mRNA molecule themselves.
  • Explain to students that the entire process of protein synthesis happens in the ribosome. If you wish to reinforce this more, have each group tape out a box labeled 'ribosome' on the desks before they get started.
  • Have students lay out their mRNA sequence using the white base pair letter cards.
  • Explain to students that each combination of three base pairs is a codon in mRNA. Each codon represents a specific amino acid that will be in their final polypeptide chain.
  • Have students go through and use the toothpicks to break their mRNA down into codons, using the toothpick as the dividing line between each one.
  • Next, have each group collect their yellow cards. Using a key (such as the one below), students will need to match each codon to the corresponding amino acid. It works like a times table, locating where the first and second base in the codon intersect. The third base in the codon specifies which line in the cell they should read. Remind students that certain codons indicate a 'stop' where the polypeptide chain will end.

mRNA translation chart
mRNA translation chart

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