Students conduct DNA fingerprinting lab with Biotech-in-a-Box.

Centreville High School biology teacher Taalibah Hassan gave her freshmen students the following scenario: Ian, a UPS delivery man, was found strangled to death in his truck, on Route 221 just west of a fictional Forest Middle School.

Using the same biotechnology used by crime scene investigators, her students had to determine which of three police suspect's DNA matches the evidence found at the crime scene.

HASSAN SAYS she hopes for students "to understand this technology, to appreciate its application in the real world or real life and to inspire them if they like it."

In order to conduct the mock investigation, Hassan and fellow teacher Sue Bowman-Heath borrowed Biotech-in-a-Box from Virginia Tech’s Fralin Biotechnology Center. The Box contained equipment and materials needed for the students to safely conduct a crime investigation-style DNA fingerprint experiment.

"I was amazed that a high school class would be doing a real DNA fingerprinting lab, and this was a great learning experience where we were able to learn how professionals work in their everyday lives," says Pawanjit Singh.

The Biotech-in-a-Box contains as much as $6,000 worth of equipment, according to the Center, a cost high school educators like Hassan at CVHS can’t afford. But as part of the Center’s outreach efforts designed to build awareness about biotechnology and to encourage Virginia students to pursue higher education and careers in biotechnology, the boxes are delivered free-of-charge to more than 100 schools and 12,000 students in the state.

Students learned how DNA evidence is analyzed, how DNA is studied to determine if twins are identical and how genetic testing is done. "We learned all about what the experts do at the FBI, hands on," says Chris Chorney.

THE LAB even inspired Easton Williams to further investigate the topic at the school's career center. "It was a thought that came into my head to go to the career center and look up majors that have to do with DNA," he says. Easton, whose father works for the police department, said: “We talked about it a lot after school. He was surprised that we were learning about crime scene investigations in biology."

Working in groups of four in multi-day lab last week, students prepared their agarose gels, loaded the DNA samples of the suspects into the agarose gel, conducted electrophoresis which produce the bands in the gel that are unique to each individual. After staining the gels and visual inspection, they are able to determine if the pattern of bands — a DNA fingerprint — match that of the DNA sample found on the “crime scene.” Because no two people except identical twins have the exact same DNA, a person’s DNA fingerprint is unique and can be used for identification, an important form of evidence in today’s crime scene investigations.

"I realized that my parents never did anything like this when they were in high school, and my older brother never did this when he was in ninth grade, so I was fortunate to have this opportunity," say Chorney. "It was way more cooler than planting pea plants and watching them grow."

THE DNA lab conducted by CVHS students last week was the same type of experiment used by Virginia Tech scientists in conducting research in the bioengineering. This cutting-edge biotechnology wasn’t available to Hassan when she was in college, but she has attended biotech conferences at Virginia Tech in order to participate in this program.

“It is important for us to look at what’s new so the students can see current possibilities for themselves," says Hassan. "You don’t want to do what your mom and dad were doing when they were in high school.”