Middle-school girls enjoy slimy science at Penn State Behrend’s Math Options

Youth outreach event is held for 21st year
Abbey Frederick and Macey Eyler pour DNA into beakers.

Abbey Frederick, left, and Macey Eyler were two participants in the DNA workshop at Math Options Career Day, held Tuesday, May 9, at Penn State Behrend. In the workshop, they isolated DNA from strawberries and bananas.

Credit: Penn State Behrend

ERIE, Pa. — To most, it would not have been a pretty sight. The piece of hanging strawberry DNA resembled something along the lines of cotton candy mixed with vegetable oil.

That didn’t matter to Macey Eyler and Abbey Frederick. As it clung to the end of a round, wooden stick, the pair of Eisenhower Middle School seventh-grade students stood in awe.

“Oh my gosh, this is so cool,” Eyler said.

“I know, look at this. We are playing with DNA right now, guys,” Frederick added.

Eyler and Frederick were two participants in the DNA workshop at Math Options Career Day at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, on Tuesday, May 9. The daylong program, now in its 21st year, was designed to expose young girls to careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — fields that generally are dominated by men.

Nearly 200 seventh- and eighth-grade girls from Erie, Crawford, Potter and Warren counties, and from Chautauqua, New York, participated in this year’s program. Penn State Behrend faculty members and professionals from GE Transportation, Erie Insurance Group, LORD Corp. and Larson Texts presented more than 25 hands-on workshops to the girls, who came from 34 different schools.

In the DNA workshop, students isolated DNA from strawberries and bananas. They first crushed the fruit in a Ziploc bag to break down its cell walls before adding in a homogenization medium. Then they used a water bath to heat the mixture, helping it permeate. Finally, the liquid mixture from the mashed fruit was filtered into a beaker and concentrated ethanol was then added.

The end result was visual DNA, which the students extracted and placed into test tubes, using wooden rods.

“We picked strawberries because they have eight copies of each chromosomes. That’s part of what they learn in the lecture that goes with this activity,” said Beth Potter, associate professor of microbiology, who led the DNA workshop. “This is also a nice hands-on activity where they get to learn about cells and then actually do the experiment themselves in the lab. It’s good, too, because this can be an individual activity, but it’s also team-oriented at the same time.”

The activity especially resonated with Frederick, who hopes to one day be a surgeon.

“A day like today is definitely great for showing kids our age all of the different options that are out there,” she said. “There are so many things that we might not have even thought about. This has just been really fun. It’s so cool to see the DNA, which is something that not many people our age will ever be able to see.”