Third-grader John Kimura shows off his extra-long DNA model.
For over seven years, the Biotechnology Outreach Program has brought science and its many topics into the lives of Hawai‘i’s keiki. The program director, Ania Wieczorek (TPSS), realized a significant knowledge gap existed concerning the general public’s knowledge of genetics and its application and importance to agriculture, and she began building her program with the goal of addressing it. She wanted to provide the basic scientific knowledge required to make better-informed decisions on current issues, such as genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
The program began with Gene-ius Day field trips, which continue today. Elementary schools visit the UH-Manoa campus every week during the regular school year, where O‘ahu’s young students conduct their own papaya DNA extractions, observe plant cells under a microscope, examine their own genetic traits, and perform skits to understand the importance of agriculture and the daily challenges of farmers in Hawai‘i. In the 2013–2014 school year, an estimated total of 1,900 students will participate in the Gene-ius Day Program. Since 2006, the field trip program has welcomed over 8,000 students.
Dylan Tawata (Grade 3) points out the DNA inside the test tube to his mom.
The success of the Gene-ius Day field trips led to the development of “Saturday Geneiuses” at UHM and Kaua‘i Community College. Elementary students visit teaching laboratories to explore genetics, botany, forensics, entomology, biotechnology, archeology, climatology, and more with exciting, hand-on activities. The team runs three 2-hour Saturday Gene-ius classes twice a month; in its initial year, Saturday Gene-iuses welcomed over 275 students. And next fall the program will expand to include grades 7–12 as well!
The science-loving Biotechnology Outreach team consists of UH staff and graduate and undergraduate students who work together to make each class fun, interesting and engaging. The result is a group of young scientists leaving the classroom excited about science. Students at the end of class commonly say, “I want to be a scientist when I grow up!” The team all agrees that this qualifies as a job well done. Dr. Wieczorek is confident that with results such as this, many students will return to the University of Hawai‘i, continue to be inspired by science and enter into science-related fields, and be prepared to make better decisions on current science-related issues.