On Unique Field Trip, High School and College Students Experiment With CRISPR in a Box™

To inspire the next generation of students to pursue careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and learn about the power of genomic science, ChristianaCare’s Gene Editing Institute has launched a new Learning Lab on its premises that offers educational programming about revolutionary CRISPR gene editing technology.

Located next to the Gene Editing Institute’s lab on the University of Delaware’s STAR Campus, the Learning Lab is a physical space that provides an immersive field trip experience for upper-level high school students and college undergraduates who may not have access at their schools to a laboratory to conduct gene editing experiments.

There is no cost for schools to use the lab or for the materials to conduct the experiment. The Gene Editing Institute wants to ensure that all schools have equal opportunity to participate in educational programming at the lab.

Two students from The Charter School of Wilmington work together to perform a gene editing experiment. “We’ve learned a lot of new skills that I’ve never really had a chance to learn before,” said Pauline Zhuang (right).

Students using the lab can perform a gene editing experiment in a single day using the Gene Editing Institute’s innovative CRISPR in a Box™ educational toolkit. All materials in the kit are safe, synthetic materials, and allow students to perform CRISPR gene editing with non-infectious E. coli bacteria. They will be able to see an appearance change indicating gene editing has occurred at the end of their experiment.

Eric Kmiec, Ph.D.

“Students around the country, no matter where they go to school, have the potential to be scientists, researchers and laboratory technicians,” said Eric Kmiec, Ph.D.,  executive director and chief scientific officer of ChristianaCare’s Gene Editing Institute.

“Our hope is that by creating access and space for students to explore, we can inspire the next generation of students to pursue STEM careers.

“The Learning Lab allows us to help cultivate the next generation of genetic scientists and strengthen Delaware and our region as a leader in biotechnology.”

Teaching next-gen scientists today

Education Program Manager Amanda Hewes, MS, developed the Learning Lab after noticing a problem that was undercutting the opportunities of teachers to bring gene editing experiments into the classroom — a lack of space and equipment.

A student spreads bacteria over an augur with a tool colloquially called a “hockey stick” spreader.

“We don’t want anything to hinder the way students learn about CRISPR gene editing,” Hewes said. “If a student feels like there are too many steps, or a teacher doesn’t have an essential piece of equipment, then we’ve lost an opportunity to bring the next generation of scientists into the lab. We’re striving to break down as many barriers as possible for students.”

Learning real-world applications of gene editing

The Learning Lab also allows students to speak directly with experts in the field about careers in biotechnology and gene editing as they learn the difference between such things as phenotypic and genotypic readouts in their gene editing experiments.

This gives students the chance to ask about the real-world application of genome experiments in a research lab. It also lets them think about their place in a lab setting.

Amanda Hewes instructs students on proper pipette technique at a Learning Lab field trip for a Charter School of Wilmington science class.

“I’ve never been in an actual lab setting before,” said Shiloh Lee, a junior at The Charter School of Wilmington, at a recent class. “I think it is very, very cool to be able to experience it.”

“I’ve learned a lot of new skills with the micropipetting,” said Pauline Zhuang, a senior. “We don’t have the same resources at our school. The CRISPR in a Box is such a great resource. My classmates and I have been able to experience, firsthand, what it is like to actually do gene editing.”

Through the program, the Gene Editing Institute hopes to educate 1,000 students by spring 2024. Currently, the lab is on track to engage more than 200 students by the end of the spring 2023 semester.

CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, which are the hallmark of a bacterial defense system that forms the basis for CRISPR-Cas 9 genome editing technology. The CRISPR technology enables researchers to modify genes in living cells and organisms and may make it possible to correct mutations at precise locations in the human genome in order to treat genetic causes of disease.

For more information about the Learning Lab and the educational program, email geneeditinginstitute@christianacare.org.