Diving into the gene pool

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A DNA machine and a Kiwanis club cultivate a growing interest in STEM.

Story by Cindy Dashnaw

Machines that could copy and analyze DNA existed when Amanda Pratt was taking college biology classes, though getting one into the classrooms was unheard of. Determined not to keep such an exciting learning tool from her own students, Pratt — now a high school science teacher — recruited the Downriver West, Michigan, Kiwanis Club to make a dream come true.

Beginning with a new semester this past January, Pratt and her Advanced Placement science students at Woodhaven High School in Brownstown gained access to the kind of gene-sequencing equipment used in medical and forensics labs and even aboard the International Space Station.

The journey began when Pratt started searching for ways to fund a machine that definitely was outside her classroom budget.

“I spent last summer researching grants, foundations, wherever I thought we might get funding, and wherever I went, I kept seeing the hashtag #KidsNeedKiwanis,” Pratt says. “I’ve known about Kiwanis since I was little — we had a Kiwanis park near my house and a Key Club in my school. So, I reached out to Preston.” 

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Preston Abadie is lieutenant governor of Michigan District’s Division 5. As soon as he received Pratt’s request, he invited her to make a presentation at a Downriver West club meeting.

“We had a really good turnout because people were interested,” he says. “It’s a topic that’s at the forefront of people’s minds.”

Adds Pratt, “With all the stuff about DNA we see on TV and from companies like Ancestry.com, the general population has gotten interested in DNA. I really think people should understand the process behind what these companies do. I’m passionate about it.”

Her passion helped persuade club members to use leftover dictionary project funds to buy Pratt a DNA machine.

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The MiniOne® PCR System is two machines in one. The first provides the necessary chemical, temperature and agitation environment to make millions of copies of DNA cells that students swab from their cheeks. The second breaks up the DNA chains so students can analyze them for specific traits.

“For instance, some of us have a taste bud (that allows us to identify a bitter taste), and some of us do not. So we find out which of us does and doesn’t using the DNA, then verify our findings,” Pratt explains.

Students are intrigued by the ability to reproduce their own DNA outside of their bodies. Even those who don’t have an inclination toward science are interested, Pratt says.

Moreover, these activities stretch beyond biology, touching the full range of STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) curriculum through physics, chemistry and math.

“Internationally, Kiwanis is embracing STEM because we recognize that our future depends on more kids getting into those areas of study and excelling,” Abadie says. “Plus, it’s tough for Kiwanis members to say no to someone asking for help. It’s in our DNA.”


This story originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

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