Scientists We spoke recently about a new Institute to help educate university students about the field of genomics, but now a new start-up called PlayDNA is taking things one step further. Alongside Village Community School (VCS) in Manhattan, they’re hoping to bring genomics into high school classrooms to teach the younger generation about DNA sequencing and data science.

“We see DNA sequencing becoming of ubiquitous interest and we want to give students a first-hand glimpse of their future world. At the same time we encourage integrative thinking by combining data science techniques to interpret the student-collected genomic data. We want to spark the interest of young students to become the next generation of data scientists and software engineers,” said Sophie Zaaijer, Ph.D., co-founder of PlayDNA.

The project started when Zaaijer and her co-founder Yaniv Erlich, Ph.D., took one of Oxford Nanopore Technology’s MinION sequencers into a class of 34 seventh graders (12-13 year olds) earlier this month. They used the sequencers as part of a biology project the children had been working on since February.

This is the second educational project Zaaijer and Erlich have worked on together in the last two years. They previously collaborated with Columbia University, where Erlich has a research lab, to develop a course called ‘Ubiquitous Genomics,’ the results of which were published in eLife last year. Using what they learned during that project, the duo now wants to transfer their skills to younger students.  

 “The best time to engage and educate students is at an early stage in their educational careers,” said Eve Kleger, VCS Head of School. “We believe the best path to knowledge is through in-depth, hands-on educational experiences. That’s what this pioneering PlayDNA program is all about:  learning by doing.”

At present, the work that PlayDNA are doing with VCS is acting as a pilot project, with the intention of expanding it to a nationwide programme should it be successful.

“VCS has a long history of advancing K-8 education into new areas of inquiry and study,” said Zaaijer, “So we were thrilled to have them as our first curriculum partner. “

To enable schools to complete the course, PlayDNA will provide them with all of the equipment and software necessary for sequencing, as well as a curriculum to follow. This curriculum is being developed in collaboration with expert Audrey Boklage, Ph.D..

“The curriculum is written in such a way that the teacher doesn’t need to be a specialist in order to adopt it,” Zaaijer said. “Every teacher should be able to get the curriculum and instantly be able to understand it and teach it.”

So far, the initial response from the students has been positive, with them appearing interested and engaged with the subject material.

“The engagement of students has been truly impressive,” said Hristo Pepelanov, a science teacher at VCS who teaches the pilot class. “Our young scientists have loved PlayDNA’s holistic, hands-on approach to multiple aspects of DNA study. They’ve learned theory and lab processes as well as basic coding and how to interpret the data of their findings. As an educator, it’s been thrilling to see students take ownership of their discoveries.”