While other middle-schoolers joke about making papier-mâché volcanoes or finding out which paper towel brand is the strongest, five area mini scientists studied DNA isolation and modification this summer.

Freddy Raftis and Cassidy Gibbs, of Murdock Middle School; Rohan Sojan and Marissa Schuler, of Port Charlotte Middle School; along with Brianna Linares, of Punta Gorda Middle School, attended Florida Gulf Coast University’s Summer Research Opportunity.

The middle school program runs for two weeks and is open to Charlotte and Lee county students who participated in the Thomas Alva Edison Regional Science and Engineering Fair.

“We offer a hands-on experience of collaboration on a complete and genuine research problem from hypothesis generation and initial design, through field and laboratory data collection, culminating in data analysis and interpretation,” according to the program’s website.

Every year, an FGCU professor is chosen to lead the summer camp and teach students more about their respective field — for instance, robotics was the theme of a previous year. The official course title this year was Introduction to Molecular Biology and Research.

The goal, according to Whitaker Center for STEM Education Director Laura Frost, is to inspire and teach young scientists.

Yainitza Hernandez, of the Department of Biological Sciences, assisted this year, Frost said.

“They did a whole lot of different molecular biology techniques and, for a middle school student, they never would’ve seen any of that before. You don’t usually learn abut that until high school. The students had a great experience learning about those new things.”

High school students involved in the science fair also have an opportunity to attend the camp. The program for older students runs for three weeks every summer, starting one week before the middle-schoolers arrive.

“(High-schoolers) start their work and, when the younger students get here, they get to help mentor them,” Frost said.

All science fair participants are able to apply, regardless of placement in the actual fair, and winners are announced at the science fair awards ceremony in January.

The theme for the year is announced before the application process is opened, so students who might be interested in, say, molecular biology, know to try out. A committee at FGCU chooses a handful of the hopefuls based on essays the children wrote.

Usually, somewhere around 25 can participate — about half from Charlotte and half from Lee — though the number varies depending on which professor and field of study lead the camp. Some more involved fields, like robotics, force the committee to keep the number lower.

Over the course of the two weeks, students created what Frost called a “thought experiment.”

“(Hernandez) used the science fair’s scientific method to have them think about a project they wanted to investigate,” she said. “She helped them walk through an experiment without them actually having to do one and, at the end of the program, the students did science fair boards on their thought experiments. They didn’t really do the experiment but they had the information up there.”

Frost said some of the students expressed interest in turning those experiments into future science fair projects.

“It gave them ideas on what they might want to investigate as a young scientific mind.”

The program, which has been held annually for over a decade, has been funded by the Daitch Family Foundation for the last five years.

“It’s fantastic that you have someone in the community that is this interested in helping these kids,” Frost said.

With a new school year starting, science fair research is right around the corner; opening up the opportunity to a new batch of kids. When the time comes, interested students can get their applications from their school science fair coordinator.

For more information, contact the Whitaker Center at 239-590-7444.


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