Science Magazine honors cutting-edge DNA web sites

December 22, 2011

When Dave Micklos and his colleagues launched Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory's DNA first Learning Center Web site, Micklos says they just wanted to "get a little information online about our institution." Fifteen years later, that Web site has grown into a portal to 18 different content areas, offering more than 7 million viewers a year fascinating, interactive genetics learning experiences.

Because of their remarkable scope and value as educational tools, Science magazine is honoring the DNA Learning Center (DNALC) Web sites with a Science Prize for Online Resources in Education (SPORE).

Science magazine developed the Science Prize for Online Resources in Education (SPORE) to promote the best science education online materials. The acronym SPORE suggests a reproductive element adapted to develop, often in adverse conditions, into something new. These winning projects can be viewed similarly, as the seeds of progress in science education, despite considerable challenges to educational innovation. Each month, Science publishes an article by a recipient of the award, which explains the winning project. The article about the DNALC Web sites -- written by Micklos, multimedia design team leader Sue Lauter and Web site producer and evaluator Amy Nissette -- will be published on December 23.

"We want to recognize innovators in science education," says Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science. "At the same time, this competition will promote those Web sites with the most potential to benefit science students and teachers. The publication of an article in Science on each winning site will help guide people to important online resources, thereby promoting science literacy."

"The Web sites act as a gateway," says Melissa McCartney, editorial fellow at Science, "providing access to the world of molecular biology, genetics, bioinformatics, biotechnology, genetic disorders, cancer, neuroscience, and plant genetics. Visitors explore topics through animation, videos, online lab notebooks, and interactive inquiry-based experiments."

Micklos, whose background and education are in biology education and science journalism, came to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in 1982 to start its first development and public information offices. He was hired by Nobel Prize-winner James Watson. Watson, who helped deduce the structure of DNA, was a pioneering advocate of communicating scientific advances to the public, especially to ward off the kind of public distrust that had previously grown up around such topics as recombinant DNA and cloning.

"Before that time, scientists did science and nothing else," Micklos says. "Jim Watson was very prescient in knowing this had to change."

As part of the effort to communicate Cold Spring Harbor's work to the public, Micklos worked to get the DNALC onto the Internet. Once it went live, its functionality and educational value quickly evolved, keeping pace with a rapidly changing online environment. By 1998, it included bioinformatics tools that allowed students to create, share, and analyze real genetic data. In "distributed experiments," or experiments that allowed participation in different locations, students were able to isolate DNA from their own cheek cells, and use online tools to amplify the mitochondrial control region of those cells. Then, after free or low-cost processing, the students' DNA sequences could be uploaded to a database and, using bioinformatics tools, the students could compare their sequences to those of classmates, world populations, and even extinct hominids.

More than a million students have uploaded their DNA data, basically engaging in the kind of experiments that professional scientists conduct.

"At least some of the science that kids learn in school should mirror what scientists are doing today, and this allows that," says Micklos, who points out that the portal's biggest audience is high school and college students. He explains that, because of the Internet, students and teachers can for the first time in history work with scientists' real data, at the same time that scientists are working on it, and with the same tools.

Science-based research has shown that the DNALC Web sites have quantifiable effects and can increase student learning by one letter grade.

In the essay in Science, Micklos and his colleagues point out that the Internet allowed them great opportunities to provide rich, effective, hands-on learning experiences. Adapting to the Internet's evolution, however, was not always easy.

The original DNALC Web site had already hit 7.1 million visitors annually by late 2006, but in early 2007, the site's rising wave of visitation crashed. Search engines had begun to determine the popularity of Web sites, and the DNALC had to break up the site's content into pieces, and label and organize that content to increase the probability of its appearance in searches. The creators of the site also had to move aggressively into apps, YouTube, and blogs.

"The point is we have to make information available to people in the way they want it," says Micklos.

By 2010, the number of visitors per year was back up to 7.1 million.

Micklos says he relayed the challenges of getting the DNALC site to where it is today because he hopes that one of the effects of winning a SPORE award will be helping other science educators with their online objectives.

"I know that people are hitting the wall with their Web sites," he says, "so I wanted them to see that we had some problems, but we surmounted them. If you're going to be a leadership organization, you have to help people understand how you solved problems."

The bottom line, he says, is that online learning is inextricably linked with science learning.

"If we're going to do well in science," Micklos says, "we're going to have to do well on the Web."
To visit the DNALC Web sites, go to

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