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."
-end-
To visit the DNALC Web sites, go to http://www.dnalc.org.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is the world's largest general scientific society, and publisher of the journal, Science (http://www.sciencemag.org) as well as Science Translational Medicine (http://www.sciencetranslationalmedicine.org) and Science Signaling (http://www.sciencesignaling.org). AAAS was founded in 1848, and includes some 262 affiliated societies and academies of science, serving 10 million individuals. Science has the largest paid circulation of any peer-reviewed general science journal in the world, with an estimated total readership of 1 million. The non-profit AAAS (http://www.aaas.org) is open to all and fulfills its mission to "advance science and serve society" through initiatives in science policy; international programs; science education; and more. For the latest research news, log onto EurekAlert!, http://www.eurekalert.org, the premier science-news Web site, a service of AAAS.

American Association for the Advancement of Science

Related DNA Articles from Brightsurf:

A new twist on DNA origami
A team* of scientists from ASU and Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU) led by Hao Yan, ASU's Milton Glick Professor in the School of Molecular Sciences, and director of the ASU Biodesign Institute's Center for Molecular Design and Biomimetics, has just announced the creation of a new type of meta-DNA structures that will open up the fields of optoelectronics (including information storage and encryption) as well as synthetic biology.

Solving a DNA mystery
''A watched pot never boils,'' as the saying goes, but that was not the case for UC Santa Barbara researchers watching a ''pot'' of liquids formed from DNA.

Junk DNA might be really, really useful for biocomputing
When you don't understand how things work, it's not unusual to think of them as just plain old junk.

Designing DNA from scratch: Engineering the functions of micrometer-sized DNA droplets
Scientists at Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech) have constructed ''DNA droplets'' comprising designed DNA nanostructures.

Does DNA in the water tell us how many fish are there?
Researchers have developed a new non-invasive method to count individual fish by measuring the concentration of environmental DNA in the water, which could be applied for quantitative monitoring of aquatic ecosystems.

Zigzag DNA
How the cell organizes DNA into tightly packed chromosomes. Nature publication by Delft University of Technology and EMBL Heidelberg.

Scientists now know what DNA's chaperone looks like
Researchers have discovered the structure of the FACT protein -- a mysterious protein central to the functioning of DNA.

DNA is like everything else: it's not what you have, but how you use it
A new paradigm for reading out genetic information in DNA is described by Dr.

A new spin on DNA
For decades, researchers have chased ways to study biological machines.

From face to DNA: New method aims to improve match between DNA sample and face database
Predicting what someone's face looks like based on a DNA sample remains a hard nut to crack for science.

Read More: DNA News and DNA Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.