Novel NSF research collaboration for DNA sequencing of Endemic Tahoe Plants with High School Students

Moderation state
Grant Applicant
David Steakley
Grant Category
Grant Date

This grant seeks funding to purchase a nanodrop UV-Vis spectrophotometer machine for classroom use in biology and AP biology courses at NTHS. A UV-Vis spectrophotometer passes specific wavelengths of light through a micro volume sample (1-2 microliters) to detect the presence of nucleic acids (DNA) and allow their quantification. Specifically it allows scientists to measure the precise amount of DNA extracted from samples for use in downstream applications like PCR and DNA sequencing. 

This instrument is vital to modern DNA based molecular biology as it allows students to accurately calibrate and set up reactions using DNA they previously extracted from live samples. This is particularly important for setting up DNA sequencing reactions. The main goal of this grant is to allow students to be able to participate in molecular biology experiments that require novel DNA sequencing. Specifically NTHS, and NTHS students have been named as collaborators on a recently funded NSF grant to do just that.

NTHS biology, through Dr. Steakley has already been funded as a broader impacts collaborator on an NSF grant, NSF proposal #2145811, “Cytonuclear stoichiometry of heterotrophic plants”. This grant was prepared by Joel Sharborough (NTHS class of 2007) who is now a professor at New Mexico Technical University and studies genome evolution through the use of DNA sequencing and bioinformatics. Specifically this grant proposes to perform sequencing the genomes of the non-photosynthetic parasitic plants pinedrop and snowflower (collected from the Tahoe basin, live and in person in NTHS AP biology courses). These are plants that no longer perform photosynthesis, and instead are parasites of other plants in their ecosystems to get nutrients. Thus, there are many interesting questions to ask about what changes that has caused in their now unused chloroplast genomes. It is a fascinating example of how evolution might be able to change populations that enter new niches and abandoned old ones. 

This project will be the first time these species have been fully DNA sequenced. NTHS students would get to participate in being the first to examine this new sequence data, and could theoretically become authors on the publication describing this data. The NSF grant described above has already allocated $5000 of funding for the sequencing reagents and sequencing machine costs. The dramatic decrease in sequencing cost will allow us a mostly complete genome sequence using new sequencing technology called nanopore sequencing (described here: How nanopore sequencing works). This level, and depth of sequencing for this low cost has only become possible in the last few years.

But, in order to answer those questions and get the sequence data we must first extract DNA from these plants and prepare samples for sequencing at NTHS. NTHS already possess the basic lab supplies (pipets, centrifuges (Excellence in Education 2018-2019 grant cycle), gel electrophoresis equipment, PCR machine (Excellence in Education 2017-2018 grant cycle), DNA extraction reagents to perform much of the required steps in this grant on site. But we specifically lack the ability to precisely quantify the amount of extracted DNA to put into the reactions that will enter the sequencing pipeline. The alternative option is to Fed-Ex the samples on ice back and forth to NM-Tech university, which is possible, but obviously not ideal and removes the students from a vital hand-on portion of the sample preparation. 

A UV-Vis spectrophotometer is a standard part of a modern biology laboratory to quantify DNA samples 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, or research project to quantify mushroom cellulase activity from Spring and Fall mushrooms of the Sierra Nevada Mountains (for which AP Biology classes (supported by previous Excellence in Education grant purchases of spectrophotometers) this year have already collected some exciting preliminary data), among others. This 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.

It is possible to share the text of the entire NSF grant, however, it contains proprietary information from the Sharbrough lab that is not publicly available. So, if it is requested, grant committee members must agree to keep it confidential and not share methods or pre-publication data outside of the panel. Please e-mail me directly at and I can share the NSF grant materials.


Benefits of Program

Funding this proposal will have durable and long-term benefits to the student population at North Tahoe High School. The purchase of the nandrop  will allow the labs and research projects 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 nanodrop will be stored and reused with no further upkeep cost. There are no consumable reagents involved in this machine. 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 this work has the real opportunity for students to participate in novel scientific research, to discover new content that is unknown to the world. The real possibility exists to be listed as authors on published scientific papers, or micro-publications ( while they are active NTHS students. AP Bio students are the most likely to be involved at this level of participation. This kind of thing is transformative for students who are interested in science and is the kind of thing that leads to science careers.

Success of Program

Discrete program success: This program will be a success if students are able to use the nanodrop to complete the labs described above and  to master the specific content referenced within them. Additionally this will be successful if it will allow NTHS students to be meaningful collaborators on the NSF grant described above and participate in novel scientific research in their NTHS biology courses.


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 DNA sequencing process are objectively interesting and get students talking about science outside of class. DNA sequencing is going to be increasing important to medical science, and family practice medical care in the coming years, and it will be great to get students involved in the process now.



With the purchase of the nanodrop the NSF collaboration and labs requiring its use will begin in 2022-2023. The lab plans and lesson materials already exist  and were created for the grant submission process, we are simply missing the instrument itself that allow us to complete them. Students will use the nanodrop in groups, and a single machine can run an unlimited amount of samples,  so only a single instrument will be required for all classes. 


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. We have none in the district currently.


This project is sustainable and durable. This one-time funding will allow these labs to be implemented every school year going forward at no cost. The lab plans and student materials that facilitate the lessons using the nanodrop have already been generated and shared with teachers at no cost. The nanodrop itself is not consumable, and will be cared for and stored at the school site to be reused yearly.
Amount Funded
Individual Budget Items(s)
$3500 - Nanodrop 1000
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. This type of specific equipment investment is not compatible with our current science budgets.



The Nanodrop machine listed above is the best value for the money after some careful comparison shopping and monitoring of secondhand science equipment sites. The new instrument lists for over $12,000 (  from the manufacturer. However, on sites like ebay or used machines that are in perfect condition are listed for around $3500. These machines are being sold by labs who need to upgrade and get increased functionality for their experiments. We do not require that and can thus benefit from being able to buy a used machine in perfect working condition at a discounted price. This grant would be used to purchase a used instrument through either ebay or to realize the discount.