What's In It header illustration


slim mold

ACTION PACKED: Students can observe the intelligent behavior and survival tactics of organisms like slime mold. Students track the path that the mold takes to navigate the maze to reach oat flakes. (Photos By Alex Crookshanks and Kristi Decourcy)

HIDDEN AWAY ON THE LOWER LEVEL of Fralin Hall are boxes of DNA and protein gel electrophoresis kits, slime molds, colorful pipettes, and other Biotech-in-a-Box adventures.

For aspiring young scientists, hands-on experience in the laboratory is ideal for piquing their scientific curiosity. For many schools across Virginia, accessing expensive scientific materials can be difficult. The Fralin Life Sciences Institute Biotech-in-a-Box program helps alleviate this strain.

The Biotech-in-a-Box program is directed by Kristi DeCourcy, senior resource associate, and Kristy Collins, director of education and outreach programs at the Fralin Life Sciences Institute.

“Even if schools can afford to buy some of the equipment, they can’t get the expendables like samples, agarose, buffers, and stains,” said DeCourcy. “Some schools are very well-equipped and have the resources. But most of the schools have a very small budget. That is why we provide these kits for them.”

In a normal year, the Biotech-in-a-Box program provides pre-made biotechnology kits for 10,000 to 15,000 science activities to public and private high schools and community colleges all over the commonwealth.

Caging the Blob kit

The Caging the Blob kit teaches students about the survival tactics of living organisms. Students construct mazes of Lego blocks to examine how slime mold responds to physical barriers.

Since its inception in 1994, the program has continued to expand. But, COVID19 required DeCourcy and Collins to tailor the program to a mostly virtual educational system.

DeCourcy debuted demo kits that teachers could present to their students via the Zoom video conferencing platform. Some teachers collaborated to film demos that could be shared with colleagues across the commonwealth to alleviate the stress of self-recording and to help ensure quality videos that will engage students.

“The teachers that borrow these kits are the best of the best. They are willing to go the extra mile to get these activities for these students,” said DeCourcy. “It’s not easy. They get this crate with everything

Kristi DeCourcy and Kristy Collins assemble a biotechnology kit

Kristi DeCourcy and Kristy Collins assemble a biotechnology kit. (Photos By Alex Crookshanks and Kristi Decourcy)

in it, but they still have to make the buffers, set everything up, and get the students going. So, the ones that are doing this program are the ones who really want their students to get the experience.”

Barbara McGrath, a biology teacher at William Byrd High School in Vinton, Virginia, has enjoyed an exceptional experience with Biotech-in-a-Box. “The Biotech-in-a-Box labs have allowed me to run vigorous, hands-on technical experiments with my AP Biology students that would normally be beyond me financially and equipment-wise,” McGrath said. “Being able to let my students experience ELISA, protein and DNA gel electrophoresis, and other labs has allowed me to instill a spark of excitement and curiosity in the biological sciences that they take on to college.”

Many of McGrath’s students go on to earn degrees in the biological sciences.

“Without Dr. DeCourcy, these labs would be forever out of reach for a biology teacher like me in the public-school setting. I am so grateful for her hard work and continued support in this partnership,” said McGrath.

Saeed Behzadinasab

Boxes of DNA and protein gel electrophoresis kits, slime molds, and colorful pipettes are among the tools included in each Biotech-in-a-Box adventure kit.

Kathryn Conrad, a former Biotech-in-a-Box student from Faith Christian School, said, “You can study all day long with a book, but when you touch things with your hands, it brings the science to life.”

The Biotech-in-a-Box program was born in 1994 when former Fralin Director Tracy D. Wilkins launched an initiative with Dennis Dean to increase and improve early science education in Virginia. Through workshops held at Virginia Tech for high school teachers around the commonwealth, Wilkins and Dean discovered that teachers were having difficulty affording equipment for science experiments.

The Biotech-in-a-Box program offers five different kits that range from chromatography to immunological tests: Protein Electrophoresis, Column Chromatography, Immunology Introduction, DNA Biotechnology, and Caging the Blob.

Let’s take a closer look at Caging the Blob:

The Caging the Blob kit teaches students about the survival tactics of living organisms. Students construct mazes of Lego blocks to examine how slime mold responds to physical barriers.

The kit contains the materials needed to test the ability of Physarum polycephalum to navigate a simple maze made of Lego blocks.

During guided inquiry, students construct mazes using Lego blocks, and the slime mold is allowed to navigate the maze and respond to the barrier. Students then generate and test hypotheses about the movement of the slime mold in response to different barriers in the open inquiry phase of the investigation.

Kristin Rose Jutras is the director of communications for Fralin Life Sciences Institute.