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Langley Middle School class turns high-tech lab

Breann Edwards uses a micro pipette to inject a colored solution into the gel electrophoresis machine. Her lab partners Libby Hawkins and Kade Petty wait their turn.  - Ben Watanabe / The Record
Breann Edwards uses a micro pipette to inject a colored solution into the gel electrophoresis machine. Her lab partners Libby Hawkins and Kade Petty wait their turn.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / The Record

LANGLEY — One classroom at Langley Middle School turned its desks into a high-tech lab this week.

Seventh-grade students learned about molecules and their charge recently and put those lessons to the test. Students in DeAnn Ross’ class were treated to something new this year — laboratory equipment from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

“The kids are really excited,” Ross said. “It changes their thoughts on science. It’s a lot different when they get to experience it this way.”

Ross is one of a select group of teachers in Washington. She was certified by the research center this summer through the Science Education Partnership after spending three weeks shadowing a researcher in Seattle. Now, Ross is allowed to use as many as eight different lab kits in her classes.

“There are very few districts across the state that have access to this equipment,” Ross said.

And South Whidbey is one of them.

During a recent lab day, 25 students wore white lab coats with “Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center” or “FHCRC” on the lapel, and used micro pipettes and gel electrophoresis machines. The middle school became a science lab. Students experimented with different solutions, each with a different color indicator, then put into a gel before being connected to a power box.

The process was more complicated in its directions from the teacher. Student-scientists had to take a micro pipette, draw 15 micro liters of a solution, then inject that into the gel.

“This takes precision and accuracy,” Ross told the class. “If you don’t get it perfectly the first time, don’t panic.”

As current flowed to nodes inside the electrophoresis, the colored solutions began to move. Some toward the negative node, some toward the positive node, and a couple stayed in the middle — though the experiment was only observed for 10 minutes before the period ended.

The ability to observe and take part in the experiments will go a long way. Ross has seen a marked improvement in her students’ test scores over the years when the test is associated with a lab.

“I find in science in particular that students need that hands-on experience to grasp it,” she said.

“They begin to connect the different pieces and even the different sciences.”

Recently the middle school assigned an iPad to each student in the seventh grade, about 110 students. The aim is to have students use them across disciplines — language arts, social studies, math, science and physical education. During the lab, a handful of students used their camera-equipped iPads to record the experiment on video and with still images. Others used it to note their observations, things like: bubbles in the water, a foggy cover to the electrophoresis machine and movement of the solutions.

“I can really encourage them to look into scientific fields,” Ross said.

“It gives them an experience with materials our school cannot afford.”

South Whidbey’s students are ahead of the curve. Most seventh graders will not experience lab equipment like this — which costs about $10,000 — until high school or even college, depending on which courses they take at South Whidbey High School. South Whidbey has another qualified teacher, Greg Ballog at the high school.

Three more kits were in Ross’ plans for this school year. The others will focus on examining DNA models and separating DNA, a lab most students perform in high school biology.

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