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Mobile science lab trains teachers in Willmar

WILLMAR -- Extracting DNA from pieces of fruit required a group of middle school teachers to squish the fruit with other ingredients, strain it through cheesecloth and then add alcohol.

The end result was a small glob of "snotty goo" clinging to the end of a pointed stick -- the DNA.

It looked gross. And the teachers were sure their students would love the whole thing when they get a chance to try it themselves during the school year.

The six teachers spent two days last week training in the Science Express, a new mobile science lab owned by St. Cloud State University.

Dr. Bruce Jacobson, a St. Cloud science professor, has directed the project which is designed to bring new educational opportunities to area schools.

The 53-foot semi trailer with two large slide-out sections contains laboratory equipment that no public school in the state could afford for its science labs, Jacobson said.

With the slide-outs in place, the lab offers a 16-by-22 lab with six stations and a conference room. During the school year, the lab will be able to accommodate 30 students.

Jacobson said the trip to Willmar last week was the first trip the lab has made away from the St. Cloud area. A series of similar workshops were held there the week before. The mobile lab was parked at the MinnWest Technology Campus, funded through a grant from the Minnesota Renewable Energy Marketplace.

In Willmar, middle school and junior high teachers spent last Monday and Tuesday training in the lab. Senior high teachers were there Wednesday and Thursday.

By taking part in the training sessions, the teachers offered their opinions on the activities and were placed on the list to have the lab parked at their schools for a week during the school year.

"I think it'll be fun for our kids to get their hands on things they couldn't ordinarily get their hands on," said Bob Stoel, a science teacher at Central Minnesota Christian School in Prinsburg.

"We're trying to find out what we think the kids will like," Stoel said as he twirled a stick in his test tube to retrieve banana DNA.

The common reaction of Stoel and his colleagues: "This is awesome."

After he explained how to retrieve the "snotty" stuff from their test tubes, Jacobson told the teachers, "I have seen video of kids doing this, and they loved it."

The teachers agreed that their young students will almost certainly enjoy the experiment and its slimy results.

"They will love this," said Mary Bernardy, a sixth-grade science teacher from Kimball. "It's very adaptable to students who are struggling and to those who are gifted," she added.

The teachers said the activity would help them show students that there are uses for DNA beyond the crime solving they see in television shows.

Other experiments Jacobson and his staff had planned for the week included following the respiration of yeast by measuring the production of carbon dioxide and separating the colors in Kool-Aid. Many activities are based on everyday products or on crime scenes, to appeal to the young detective in many kids, he said.

Jacobson said his first vision for the mobile lab was modest, possibly a used semi trailer that he could fix up. But Medtronic stepped in with the 53-foot trailer that had been used to train physicians to implant defibrillator. It has a generator for power.

Grants from the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Bioscience Initiative helped equip the lab.

Jacobson said he plans to take the mobile lab to the Legislature, too, and have some legislators try it out. It would lead to a plea to help schools increase funding for school science programs.

The Science Express is the state's first mobile science lab, but they have been used in other states.

"They've shown to be effective with kids," Jacobson said. He expects a strong response when reservations open later this month.

To get started, he has used curriculum developed for some of the other labs, but "we will develop our own stuff," he said. Eventually, he hopes to see more labs developed, so they can deliver services all over the state.