Students get sweet DNA lesson at CRC

Incarcerated students hold models of DNA.
Students hold models in a DNA lesson at CRC.

By CRC staff

Students in Sierra Whitney’s GED classes at California Rehabilitation Center (CRC) recently had the opportunity to do something outside the box. Instead of the usual routine of book, paper, pencil and calculator, everybody cleared their desks and got to work in a more kinesthetic fashion.

The assignment was to create a DNA molecule out of toothpicks, wooden splints, colored marshmallows, and red and black licorice.

“Perhaps not quite what the original scientists Watson and Crick envisioned,” Whitney shared, “but the candy model we created in class proved to be just as accurate.”

The DNA molecule’s structure was discovered by American biologist James Watson and English physicist Francis Crick in 1953 and was described to be in structure a three-dimensional double-helix – a “twisted ladder.”

Each strand the students created in class consisted of a phosphate (wooden splint), a deoxyribose sugar (licorice), and a nitrogenous base (marshmallow). Once they created each strand they then coiled the two strands around each other and connected them with a toothpick in the center, which represented a hydrogen bond.

Perhaps the trickiest part of construction was modeling how DNA base-pairing occurs, matching specific colored marshmallows with each other just as an actual DNA strand would pair up bases: adenine (A) and thymine (T) and cytosine (C) and guanine (G).

The students even went so far as to begin DNA replication using the black licorice to signify newly formed DNA creating a second model from the first that illustrated how DNA replicates in our cells.

In class in the past, Whitney and her students have discussed how DNA is our own unique genetic “footprint” and that no two individuals have the same (except of course identical twins). They also have discussed mutations, “cute” ones that cause dimples and freckles, as well as mutations due to errors during DNA replication and environmental sources like exposure to too much sunlight (UV radiation). They have learned how if a mutation is copied and passed on this is in fact how cancer can spread throughout our bodies.

“We have discussed too that often times the word ‘mutation’ has a negative connotation; however, mutations actually have given us the genetic diversity we see today looking around at the faces in our own classroom,” Whitney commented.

“I worried that the lab would be too complicated for my inmate students or that they would struggle to assemble the model or even be bored with the technical concepts,” she added. “But quite the contrary occurred. My students successfully created their own DNA models with minimal direction from me and were curious about mutations and how they could make life choices that would protect them from environment mutations like using sunblock or not smoking. Best of all, we had a lot of fun while learning and a tasty snack to eat at the end.”

Whitney reported there was a lot of laughter and peer collaboration. Students who normally were less engaged or less talkative participated in the activity. Academic Vice Principal Steven Sasaki even dropped in to see the candy DNA models.

It was proof that complicated science activities could be done even in the unlikely of environments like prison, Whitney said.

“As teachers wherever we work we still must attempt to include all learning modalities: aural, visual, physical, and so on so that learning is still interesting and relevant. This is especially true of those of us teaching in prisons and working with adults. Because the truth is we are all still learning, teachers and students alike,” he said.

When Whitney forwarded a brief description and a few pictures of the lab to CDCR Superintendent Shannon Swain that same day she replied: “I have been having a bit of a rough day today … and then I get your email. And once again, I see the WHY that I keep on keeping on, and I am once again regenerated and reinvigorated to do this work.”