Modern molecular biology and biotechnology in the high school biology classroom

Grant Date
Grant Applicant
David Steakley
Grant Category
Amount Funded
Description (10 points)

This grant seeks funding to purchase a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machine for classroom use in biology and AP biology courses at NTHS. A PCR machine is a analytical instrument that precisely heats and cools small liquid samples to allow biological enzymes to copy DNA, generating millions of copies of a specific DNA sequence from a small and non-specific starting pool. (The process is described in further detail here: This process won the 1993 Nobel prize in chemistry and is based on the idea that a DNA polymerase, copying enzyme, from a heat loving bacteria can still operate at high temperatures, but DNA itself will denature, or split up, into multiple strands at those same high temperatures. This allows the exponential copying of specific DNA molecules in a sample, by precisely modifying the temperature, up and down, of the samples themselves. This is what a thermal cycler does. It makes rapid, timed changes to precise temperatures of a set of biological samples.

A PCR machine is a standard part of a modern biology laboratory and allows scientists to complete a number of modern molecular biology protocols. Having access to this will allow teachers to complete relevant and engaging labs with classes. Examples include: preparing samples of DNA from supermarket bought fish to determine if the label matches the actual species, preparing samples for DNA sequencing of bacteria from Lake Tahoe water samples to potentially identify new bacteria present in the lake, creating DNA samples to use in bacterial transformation activities to creating glowing bacteria, among others. These tools will allow science students at NTHS to get real world experience using professional level equipment and doing modern, interesting molecular biology experiments. This is a tremendous help because students are able to contextualize and apply the scientific concepts they are studying in their courses with their own hands. With the transition to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) this is now the expectation and the purchase of this tool will allow NTHS students to keep up with the now increasingly rigorous standards.  As the district broadly transitions to NGSS science instruction, students students will need to engage with tools and labs like these in order to build the 21st century skills. This skills are paramount for success in future science careers, and success on upcoming NGSS-aligned science assessments.

Benefits of Program (10 points)

Funding this proposal will have durable and long-term benefits to the student population at North Tahoe High School. The purchase of the PCR machine will allow the labs described above to be delivered to students in all grades (all 9th graders in  biology and upper classmen in AP bio). Over time the whole school population will benefit from their use. The PCR machine will be stored and reused with no further upkeep cost. Consumables required for its use will be paid for with the yearly NTHS science department budget. Numerous empirical studies have demonstrated that student-centered, hands-on curriculum, like these labs, increases student learning outcomes in a variety of ways. Labs and equipment like this allow students to physically engage with real science data, and form their own conclusions based on their observations. It also allows them to arrive at universal truths about many chemical and biological principles by generating and testing hypotheses themselves rather than reading information from a book and taking it as fact. By providing opportunities for students to stretch their critical thinking skills and "act like scientists" while they look at real science data, they are able to internalize the information in a far deeper and more authentic way. Not only does this type of learning experience motivate and engage students, these skills are cross-curricular in that they allow students to create meaningful argumentation from evidence and use quantitative arguments to support their ideas, having far-reaching benefits across subject areas.

Additionally, having access to this machine will allow biology teachers to prepare and generate reagents for some labs themselves, at low-cost, compared to having to buy those kits yearly from science education companies. For example, DNA samples required for an unrelated DNA electrophoresis lab usually must be purchased yearly from a science lab company, but with a PCR machine in house, buying the kit one time will allow us to make our own copies of the reagents and store them for use in all years going forward. As a former life science researcher and PhD, I have already done this protocols many times and the savings can be significant. The upfront cost of the instrument is real, but the year over year savings of being able to generate some of our own materials for other labs will eventually recoup the entire cost of the instrument.

Success of Program (10 points)

Discrete program success: This program will be a success if students are able to use the PCR to complete the labs described above and  to master the specific content referenced within them.


General program success: As described above, this program will allow students to engage in scientific content in an authentic, hands-on way. This leads to more generalized success by having a positive impact on student motivation and engagement with the subject matter, by supporting 21st century skills development, and pushing students to create meaningful argumentation from evidence and use quantitative arguments based on data they collected to support their ideas.


Evidence to support discrete and general success: Before coming to North Tahoe High School, I taught in another district where I worked in a small team of teachers to write or modify similar labs as a part of the transition to NGSS. Last year at NTHS, I delivered labs like these to students, but had to provide “example data” they could work from because we did not have access to the required instruments to collect it ourselves. While it met the bare minimum requirements, it was far from ideal. Research has shown that when students collect data themselves and participate in the experimental planning, as well as data collection and analysis themselves their level of understanding and retention is higher. Beyond covering specific performance standards and lab content, this labs and investigations seek to allow students to experience how "real science" gets done, and how ideas are shaped by data and curiosity to arrive at the ideas we currently think of as correct. Initial evidence suggests that these types of NGSS-aligned learning experience foster this curiosity and better-prepare students for careers in the sciences. Labs we can do with this machine and the PCR process are objectively interesting and get students talking about science outside of class.

Implementation (10 points)

With the purchase of the PCR machine labs requiring its use will begin in 2018-2019. The lab plans and lesson materials already exist, we are simply missing the instrument itself that allow us to complete them. Students will use the PCR machine in groups, and a single machine can run an unlimited amount of samples, so only a single instrument will be required for all classes.

This project is sustainable and durable. This one-time funding will allow these labs to be implemented every school year going forward at low cost (consumables only). The lab plans and student materials that facilitate the lessons using the PCR machine have already been generated and shared with teachers at no cost. The PCR machine itself is not consumable, and will be cared for and stored at the school site to be reused yearly. Consumables (reagents, enzymes, plastics etc.) will be paid for yearly in the NTHS science budget.
Can you share this grant with your grade level or subject team?

Yes, I have already generated all of the required student and teacher materials, and have discussed how they will be implemented by the other science teachers at NTHS. The materials are available for review if requested. This machine can also be used by other teachers at the site and I am willing and able to provide assistance and support, as needed, to ensure successful implementation. Truckee High biology classes would also be welcome to run samples on it as well. I do not believe we have on in the district currently.

Budget (10 points)
Budget Item(s)
$2595 - Bio-rad T100 Thermal Cycler
Amount Requested
Budget Notes

The PCR machine listed above is the best value for the money after some careful comparison shopping. There are instruments that can perform similar,  limited functions, but based on reviews of their durability I don’t think they are a good investment long term. It would be a shame to buy a slightly cheaper instrument that doesn't last, or can’t do a certain function that might be required in a future protocol. The model listed above is “future proof” because of it specs, and the warranty provided by the manufacturer.

Other funding sources

I did speak with my site team, and it is possible that site fund could be used to support this project, however, that would mean that money normally directed towards science class consumables (lab reagents etc.) would no longer be available for other science courses and some other specific labs may need to be removed from the curriculum because of a lack of funding for consumables.


Please don't hesitate to contact me with any questions or concerns, I would be happy to discuss any aspect of the grant further.