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River studies whet appetites for science career

A group of students from Years 7-8 at Tamaki Primary School in 2021 sample water at Johnson's Reserve. They observed tuna (eels) in the pond and tuna DNA was detected in the environmental DNA sequence data from that site
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Putting tiny river creatures under the microscope, and using DNA sequence information to look at complex ecosystems, is not only whetting the appetites of some young Auckland students for a career in science but also creating new resources for the country’s biology teachers.

The SouthSci STEM Monitoring Microbes project was a collaboration between six schools in Tāmaki (Auckland) and scientists from the University of Auckland’s Medical and Health Sciences Faculty and the School of Biological Sciences.

SouthSci is an initiative of COMET Auckland – Te Hononga Akoranga and the Government’s Curious Minds programme – He Whenua Hihiri i te Mahara.

SouthSci aims to show young people in South Auckland the value of science skills and highlight potential career pathways.

The project’s focus was on the Omaru River in the Auckland suburb of Glen Innes. Students from the six schools chosen partnered with the University of Auckland’s Genomics into Medicine programme to use DNA technology to explore the diversity of life associated with the awa (river).

This gave them an insight into biological and environmental sciences.

Environmental DNA, or eDNA, refers to all the tiny traces of genetic material left behind in the air, water or soil when living things interact with their environment.

However, part way through initial planning, teachers and scientists quickly realised that there was a lot more learning needed before the project could begin.

They realised that years 7-8 students (intermediate age) had limited exposure to cellular biology and only vague conceptions of what DNA was.

The project team then decided to use the ‘scaffolding’ approach by starting with the basics then building students’ knowledge and confidence with genomics over time.

New teaching resources created

Out of this work new genomics teaching resources have been developed for Years 7-8 and years 11-13 (senior high school). These resources have been made freely available and enable all biology teachers throughout Aotearoa to give students a window on some of the most important advances in modern biology.

Genomics is the study of genomes, which comprises all the DNA belonging to all living things on earth.

More than 280 students from Saint Pius X School, Point England School, Tamaki Primary School, Glen Innes Primary School, Glenbrae School and Tamaki College took part in the two-year programme.

Dr Thierry Lints, a genomics scientist with the University of Auckland, and Dr Jannie van Hees, a literacy expert, worked with teachers to develop a complete introductory biology and genomics programme.

College too late for science interest

Dr Lints was a neuroscientist in the United States but also a trained secondary school teacher. He came up with the concept and wrote the proposal to seek SouthSci funding as he was keen to get children more interested in science at intermediate school level.

He says that experience has shown that if engaging in science is left until high school, it can be too late because students are already beginning to opt for other subjects.

He says large United Kingdom studies show a massive drop-off during the early high school years in the desire to become a scientist.

During the Auckland project, education and science specialists worked with the schools to develop a practical research programme about biology and DNA, in particular. This culminated in students collecting samples from the Omaru awa and using eDNA technology to analyse the organisms living in the awa.

Dr Thierry Lints says large United Kingdom studies show a massive drop-off during high school years in students’ desires to become scientists

The students were also fascinated with using microscopes to view complex cell structures and learning about how so many living things were linked in their local river ecosystem.

The programme started with students learning about the fundamentals of  evolution, adaptation and cell biology. This was supported by science mentors and activities using 50 microscopes donated by the University of Auckland.

Microscopic details fascinated students

“An unexpected outcome was the phenomenal degree of interest students displayed in using microscopes. They were fascinated by the complex structures of plant and animal tissues unseen by the naked eye,” says Dr Lints.

Students progressed to learning about DNA sequences and the hands-on skills required for sampling eDNA. This culminated in a series of sampling days along Omaru awa, where students collected and filtered water samples in preparation for DNA extraction.

The DNA extracted was sequenced at the University of Auckland’s laboratories and the results were analysed by students back in their classrooms.

Dr Lints says the experience of working with the children was incredibly rewarding.

He found the children very enthusiastic about the material and was surprised at the extent of complex information they could take on board.

Julius Matiseni, a Year 7 student at Point England School in 2021, enjoys success assembling a karyotype of a model set of 23 pairs of human chromosomes

Science info helps understand conservation

He says that, from an early age, children are getting the conservation message but usually only gain a better understanding of how basic biology works from year 11 onwards only if they take science subjects.

He also believes all students should leave school knowing how DNA and proteins regulate human biology.

“This would equip them with the knowledge needed to evaluate information relevant to health decisions they make throughout their lives.”

A particular pitch of this project was to Māori and Pacific students as there is a need for them to be better represented among researchers in the field of genomics.

Genomics can help tailor medical treatments (drugs and medicines) to patients, in what is termed precision medicine. Requirements can vary according to the patient’s ethnicity.

Dr Lints says, it is important, therefore, that indigenous scientists lead any genomics research with their populations, and have control of their own health and DNA data, to find solutions that benefit their own people.

Dr Lints said by the end of the project, 84 per cent of the students agreed they had learnt something new and 78% recognised science as an important subject to study in school.

Project strengthened partnerships

The project has also strengthened partnerships between these schools and the University of Auckland’s Medical School. One example is that Tamaki College has recently launched the Tereora (Health Science) Academy and invited Dr Lints to join as an advisor.

The school and university have also organised visits for Years 12-13 biology students to speak to Māori and Pacific researchers and see the laboratories at the Medical Sciences Learning Centre.

Growing partnerships between schools and scientists presents many exciting opportunities for engaging more Tāmaki youth in STEM in the future.

The next round of SouthSci funding applications in South Auckland is open until April 15, 2022. Schools, universities, community and iwi groups can apply for up to $20,000 in funding for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) projects based in South Auckland.

A new initiative for West Auckland schools and Pacific community groups has also just been launched. Applications for up to $10,000 are open until May 2022.

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For more information:

COMET Auckand

All resources for the genomics programme for Years 7-11 and Years 12-13 students are available free to teachers through the Biology Educators Association of New Zealand (BEANZ) and NZ Biology Teachers Facebook page.

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