Wednesday, October 2, 2013

DNA Day at the Otago Museum: Genetics Activities for Kids!

This past week and a half I was in Dunedin for a short term contract, in the majority for writing and designing the print media for use at the DNA day hosted at the Otago Museum, by Genetics Otago.  (the flyer to the right was the Museum's own design, I did the activity posters stuff).

It was fantastic, and I loved it immensely.  If I could do such writing and design for SciCom as a full time job I would be in heaven every day at work.

I don't think I actually have any photos of my work in situ at the Museum; we were all crazy busy playing with DNA models etc with the kids, but if I get more photos from the others I will be sure to pop them up.

Side note: If you are interested in seeing the resources I developed for re-use or adaptation, please flick me an email!

My favourite activity was the Inheritance Tree - I designed the leafless tree poster with trait options written on the branch forks and had visitors to the museum put green stickers on the branches for each trait option they possessed.  Really (overly) simple stuff like attached earlobes or widows peak hairline - but the accumulating 'leaves' gave a really nice, simple and completely visual representation of trait distribution in the general population.  I think having such a poster up in a classroom, for example, would be a really great way to get the kids introduced to inheritance and genetics, and hopefully start some conversations.  And to top it off - I drew it using my mouse, since my graphic tablet was obviously still at home.

Another activity we had up was 'Find the Glitch' - a string of nucleotide AT/CG code with one base substitution.  This activity allowed us to introduce the ideas of DNA base coding, what the genome looks like with regards the basic 'information', and mutation.  If the kids found the substitution, they got a chocolate fish.  Since I had somewhat carte blanche with writing and design, the snippet of code came from the sarah gene in Drosophila.  Good times!

For each activity I made both sign posters and explanation/fact posters.  It was actually super fun being able to use slightly more creative fonts than is usual with making scientific posters for conferences, for example.  (though I believe we scientists as a whole need to do better with the visual design side of conference posters, too.  SciCom baby!  More important than you thought!).

We had a table running a basic DNA extraction from banana - hot water and ethanol, so- much more highly supervised than the other activities, but the kids finished with a tube of their own banana DNA and an appreciation for the basic principle of DNA extraction.  You can see the activity table here, with a couple of the PhD students demonstrating and several enthralled kids.

There was a 'Build an Edible Helix' table, where we had bags prepared for the kids containing two strips of red licorice, various fruit puffs and toothpicks.  The fruit puffs were attached between the licorice with the toothpicks, as 'bases' and the kids twisted the ladder form to make the helix.  Again - lollies are always going to be popular with the kids, but those who managed to make the shape before consuming the lollies - now possess a basic understanding of the helix formation of DNA.

The old Supe had managed to get his hands on a bunch of DNA model sets from the epic Molymod, and both kids and adults alike seemed to delight in assembling the models.  I know for a fact that most of the PhD students and helpers wanted to obtain a model of their own by the end, too.  (Want! I want one!).

We ended up getting some delightfully interpretive DNA models.  It was a lot of fun playing with the models, with the kids.  I was actually a bit surprised with this one - I figured the older kids, if any, would be interested.  But it was actually pretty much all ages - young kids wanting to play with the 'puzzle', older kids showing their mettle (more likely to want to prove themselves able of getting it perfect) and the adults again - playing with the 'puzzle'.

It was a really nice reminder of the level of genetics knowledge in the general public, too.  You definitely tend to forget the (low) amount known, and the shear fascination even the simple genetics facts holds for the lay person.

The last activity I wrote and designed was a colouring in competition - a series of 6 generic Genetics research-associated images with a paragraph of explanatory information.

They also had a wee stage set up and had several talks running throughout the day, and Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith was there with her sample collection table for her Africa to Aotearoa origins study (podcast, press release).  The Genetics Otago Publicity Manager also had a host of beautiful banners up, highlighting a couple of their key researchers work.

From a learning perspective, I certainly gained a lot.  The space was massive, and the sign posters looked tiny in perspective, despite all being at least A3.  If I was to do such a thing again, I would run with the poster printing facilities of most printshops these days and have massive table-long title banners up.  We also wanted to have a series of 'did you know?!' fact sheet posters up, but I just ran out of time.  For writing and design of such a big work brief I certainly should have arranged a contract longer than 7 full-work days.

My major hiccup was the missing banana protocol poster - the departmental printer guy (who is amazing and a complete sweetheart) missed printing the file, and I didn't take the time to do a printing stock-take.  This is certainly something I will always do in future.  Luckily the Supe had access to the departmental A3 printer after-hours and just popped back to print some out.

Once you start thinking about a day like this too - you come up with more and more activity ideas.  The potential is massive and I think the model very translatable to museums/schools around the country.

Overall - the best work contract of my employed life, to date!


  1. It was great - the activities were fine for a four-year-old (Ella really enjoyed it and was VERY EXCITED when she got banana DNA) but appealed to the older kids too. You all did an awesome job!

    1. Thanks! Was great to see you, and meet your beautiful family :D

      Good luck with the job hunt...again?!