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SD teachers learn how mRNA vaccines work

Science teachers Tracy Chase, left, and Bobbi Jo Bohnet examine bacteria in a petri dish
Science teachers Tracy Chase from McCook Central in Salem, left, and Bobbi Jo Bohnet from the Clark School District check bacterial growth as part of a four-day synthetic biology workshop at South Dakota State University.

Three South Dakota science teachers learned techniques to study how cells work through a four-day biology workshop at South Dakota State University. Those lessons, including how mRNA vaccines work, aim to help the teachers get their students excited about cutting-edge science.

“I am going to incorporate this into my genetics unit,” said Bobbi Jo Bohnet, who teaches science to middle schoolers in Clark. “Life sciences is my favorite class to teach and this workshop is a perfect fit.” This will be Bohnet’s fifth year teaching in the Clark School District.

Tracy Chase, who has taught science at McCook Central in Salem for 18 years, said, “I participated in Dr. Nepal’s iLEARN project in 2018. I really enjoyed it and the connections that I made, so I asked if there was room for me in this workshop—and there was.”

Science teacher Brian Labelle holding a petri dish
Brian LaBelle, who teaches science at Tiospa Zina Tribal School, shows off the picture he painted in a petri dish using different types of bacteria.

Brian LaBelle began teaching high school science at Tiospa Zina Tribal School in Sisseton last year after a 31-year career in medical technology with the Indian Health Service. “I did microbiology every day there,” said Labelle, a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate. After spending his first year teaching online, he’s looking forward to getting into the classroom and getting students excited about science—and what he’s learned at the workshop will help him do that.

The teacher workshop is part of a four-year, nearly $1.14 million National Science Foundation project that uses simplified cell circuitry, known as synthetic biology, to study how proteins are produced, degraded and modified.

“I wish I had them all as a student—what they do is amazing,” said assistant professor of biology and microbiology Nicholas Butzin, who leads the NSF project. This was his first experience with science teachers—and the first of three summers the workshop will be available for three teacher participants.

Butzin worked with professor Madhav Nepal of the Department of Biology and Microbiology to plan the workshop, selecting topics based on next-generation science standards. Ten SDSU graduate students assisted teaching the lessons, with at least two students working with each teacher.

“The teachers were so open with the graduate students; it was really fascinating to see the collaboration,” said Nepal, who coordinated the U.S. Department of Agriculture iLEARN teacher workshops to which the McCook Central science teacher referred. The teachers and graduate students had the option to earn two college credits at the discounted rate through the workshop.

Butzin said, “We showed in a test tube how DNA transcribes to RNA and RNA to protein, using proteins that are fluorescent so they can visualize that transformation. This is the central dogma of molecular biology and one of the hardest concepts for students to follow—this makes it real.”

In addition to learning how to prevent contamination in a lab environment, the teachers spread different bacteria on growth medium in a petri dish to paint a picture. Each bacteria turned a different color after incubation.

The teachers also bioengineered bacteria, cloning a fluorescent encoding gene into bacteria to understand how synthetic biologists can redesign and modify organisms for practical purposes. “Within 24 hours, the teachers could see their modifications using ultraviolet light,” Butzin said.

To illustrate how molecular biologists obtain data by tracking bacteria shape and size, the teachers used machine-learning software to count simple shapes. “They were able to do it so very quickly,” Butzin said. “This shows how well adapted these teachers are.”

During the final session, Butzin and a graduate student described the science behind vaccines, including the new RNA vaccine technologies. “All three COVID-19 vaccines are synthetic biology products, which helps people understand why this is so important,” Butzin said.

The teachers closed each day by meeting with Nepal to discuss how they can apply what they learned to develop lessons that meet science curriculum standards. The participants’ lessons will be available on SDSU’s Open Prairie immediately after the completion of the workshop and then worldwide through the NSF database during the final year of the project.

“This research project has an effective science outreach component focusing on the professional development of the K-12 science teachers. Integrating teacher training on contemporary synthetic biology topics, such as development of mRNA vaccines, is a sustainable way of helping teachers—and getting students interested in biotechnology, biology and science in general,” Nepal said.