High school science students often are limited to basic experiments that can be performed in ill-equipped labs.
But not on Tuesday, for Dawn Heldreth’s international baccalaureate biology class at Fort Dorchester High School. Those students learned how to test patients for Rett Syndrome, a genetic neurodevelopmental disorder, mainly affecting females, that causes seizures, language deficits, intellectual disability and developmental regression .
The experiment was a hands-on simulation of diagnostic testing done at the Greenwood Genetic Center, one of four centers in the United States participating in the Rett Syndrome Natural History Study funded by the National Institutes of Health.
“This is a great opportunity for the students because these are things that we wouldn’t be able to do in the classroom,” Heldreth said.
They were able to do them in the Gene Machine, a 41-foot science lab on wheels that visited the school Tuesday. Students spent the day learning about cell structure, DNA, Mendelian inheritance and consequences of mutations.
“We highlight the research and technology that the center uses,” said genetics instructor Jackie Cascio.
The nonprofit institute provides clinical genetic services, diagnostic laboratory testing, educational programs and research in the field of medical genetics.
The Gene Machine was acquired by the center in 2010 to provide educational outreach opportunities for high school students through hands-on activities and real-world applications. Funding was provided through a grant from the National Human Genetics Research Institute of the National Institutes of Health.
The Gene Machine is like the children’s cartoon “The Magic Schoolbus,” but instead of chronicling the adventures of Ms. Frizzle and her class as they travel to the solar system or the human body, the Gene Machine travels to high schools around the state and is visited by students who learn about testing for diseases and disorders such as Rett Syndrome, cancer and sickle cell.
“The students get to learn about the technology that we use for some genetic testing and do an activity that they normally wouldn’t have the opportunity to do until college,” said genetics instructor Katie Henderson. “It gives them the opportunity to take what they learn from books into the real world, and also to explore the different job fields in science.”
Through the first two years, the mobile lab logged more than 26,000 miles serving more than 8,000 students in 30 counties. It will visit Goose Creek High School today and Charleston Charter School for Math and Science on Thursday.
Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or www.facebook.com/brindge.