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Iowa State University Extension

Biotechnology education connects science to ordinary things

educators learn about biotechnology

Four dogs and one chewed shoe: Which dog did it? To find out, try a little CSI-style DNA fingerprinting. It’s quick, simple and all in a day’s work for ISU Extension and ISU’s Biotechnology Outreach Education Center. It’s one way the ISU partners connect science to ordinary things and reach 18,000 school-age children and more than 100 teachers each year with biotechnology education.

From DNA profiling in crime scene investigation to modified agricultural crops to even a dog-chewed shoe — biotechnology is everywhere. So ISU Extension and the Biotechnology Outreach Education Center are partnering to help Iowans understand the science that underlies 21st century biotechnology developments and the related economic, ethical and social issues.

“Just watch the news, read the paper,” said Mike Zeller, the center’s outreach education coordinator. “We don’t think about the technology. It’s become part of everyday life.”

Funding from ISU Extension along with a workforce of ISU Extension staff scattered throughout the state help Zeller expand the center’s reach. Biotechnology education fits particularly well with ISU Extension 4-H Youth Development programs in science, engineering and technology that offer practical, hands-on experiences for Iowa youth.

“My job is outreach in biotechnology. Extension staff are very valuable at spreading the word in this arena,” Zeller said. “We use the ISU Extension system to get the curriculum out.”

The Biotechnology Outreach Education Center educates teachers and students from school age to adult in a state-of-the-art lab on the ISU campus. Zeller and ISU Extension specialists also conduct workshops for teachers throughout the state. In addition, ISU Extension specialists and trained Iowa teachers educate kids using free kits from the center that include everything an educator would need to teach about biotechnology topics ranging from DNA extraction to bioethics.

Zeller wants to provide materials to ISU Extension specialists and teachers that are easy to use. He said, “We don’t want them to come back to us and say it’s too hard.”

That the kits are easy to use is proven by the results. During the 2007-2008 school year the center has filled more than 200 requests for the kits and supplies.

For more information, contact Zeller at

This article appeared in June 2008 -- From Jack Payne Newsletter