Cold Spring Harbor, NY, July 15, 1999 -- Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory's DNA Learning Center (DNALC), creator of the world's first portable genetics laboratory-the Vector Van, in 1986-is about to unveil another novel educational vehicle. Thanks to a new grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), the DNA Learning Center is developing the VectorNet Computer Laboratory, the first portable, educational bioinformatics laboratory.
Like the Vector Van, the VectorNet Computer Laboratory is a traveling educational tool. "During the 1980s and 1990s, our silver Vector Vans carted a complete molecular genetics lab around the country and provided the infrastructure to train more than 2,000 biology faculty nationwide," says David Micklos, director of the DNA Learning Center. "Now, the VectorNet Computer Laboratory will do the same to educate students and teachers about the use of computers in biological research."
A DNALC survey of schools nationwide indicated that incorporation of advanced scientific techniques has been largely a suburban movement, with inner city schools last in line to receive up-to-date technology. (e.g., as of 1996, only one of NYC's 3 prestigious science high schools had the equipment necessary for molecular genetics.) In response to this survey, the DNA Learning Center, in collaboration with Mount Sinai School of Medicine, developed DNA laboratories in 5 New York metropolitan high schools that represent the cultural and economic diversity of New York City. During the academic year, the VectorNet Computer Laboratory will initially deliver a program called New York City Genes to these high schools, to complement the students' work in their DNA labs. During summer months, the mobile laboratory will serve as the Vector Bioinformatics Workshop, and will travel around the United States to provide training in modern genetics instruction for high school science teachers.
The high school DNA laboratories set up by the DNA learning Center and Mt. Sinai aimed to interest students in DNA science by allowing them to study their own DNA. Now, the VectorNet Computer Laboratory will allow students to compare their own DNA with that of other individuals around the world, by utilizing an emerging field of research called bioinformatics. This emerging field of science involves the use of computers to explore human genetics and other biological areas, using sophisticated software and networking tools. The growth of bioinformatics was triggered in part by the Human Genome Project and other large-scale DNA sequencing projects, which are generating raw data at unprecedented rates. These unanalyzed DNA sequences require highly efficient organization, integration into existing databases, and accessibility to scientists worldwide.
The VectorNet Computer Laboratory includes state-of-the-art tools for hands-on learning about the management and analysis of scientific data, including a presenter workstation, 10 participant computers, a server equipped with satellite access to the Internet and a wireless local area network (wLAN). The traveling laboratory uses wireless Intranet transceivers and a video projector, and it can be easily transported to deliver a readily configurable classroom. The teaching laboratory will make use of online data analysis tools, communication facilities, and other resources developed by the staff of the DNA Learning Center, as well as other bioinformatics resources available to the public.
This project was funded by a grant from the HHMI Precollege Science Education Initiative for Medical Research Institutes (http://www.hhmi.org/precollege99). Of 108 applicants and 35 awardees, the DNA Learning Center was one of only two institutions to receive the maximum award of $500,000. The funds will be used for the purchase of equipment for the mobile bioinformatics laboratory, and for its implementation and administration including transport of the laboratory equipment, support for faculty who will implement the training programs, and continuing curriculum development.
The DNA Learning Center has been an innovator in science education since its inception in 1986. It was the first institution devoted entirely to educating the public about DNA-based science. In 1998, the DNA Learning Center unveiled the first-of-its-kind genetics education web site. Called DNA from the Beginning [http://vector.cshl.edu/dnaftb], the site is an animated genetics primer that guides individuals from the basic concepts of inheritance through up-to-the minute methods of DNA analysis.
The DNA Learning Center is an educational component of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL), a basic research institute for the biological sciences, recognized internationally for its research and educational programs. The Laboratory was established on the north shore of Long Island in 1890 as a field station for the study of evolution. Today its major research programs focus on cancer, neurobiology, and plant biology. Although Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory offers an extensive array of scientific conferences, courses and other educational activities, the DNA Learning Center is devoted entirely to public education.