For aspiring young scientists, getting hands-on experience in the laboratory is the best way to pique their scientific curiosity and expand their knowledge in a memorable way. But for many schools across Virginia, getting access to expensive scientific materials can be difficult with already stretched out budgets. Virginia Tech's Biotech-in-a-Box program helps to alleviate this strain.

“Even if schools can afford to buy some of the equipment, they can’t get the expendables like samples, agarose, buffers, and stains,” said Kristi DeCourcy, the coordinator of the Biotech-in-a-Box outreach program. “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 middle schools and high schools all over the state of Virginia. Since its inception in 1994, the program has continued to expand, and their numbers have been fairly steady. But, COVID-19 sent a devastating blow to this year’s program.

“We pulled the plug on sending kits out in March,” DeCourcy said. “The schools are almost all virtual. This academic year, a lot of teachers opted out. Nobody knows what’s going to happen. I have a lot of requests lined up for the spring and the teachers are hoping that they will be available then. I probably got 5 percent of my normal requests for fall, and some of those were canceled when schools switched to virtual after the semester started.”

In light of Virginia’s shift to a mostly virtual education system, DeCourcy is making a demo kit that the teachers could borrow and show on the Zoom video conferencing platform with their students. Some teachers are working together to film the demos and share with one another to alleviate the stress of recording and share 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. Yeah, they get this crate with everything 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,” said DeCourcy.

Back in 1994, Fralin director Tracy D. Wilkins launched an initiative with Dennis Dean to help increase and improve early science education around Virginia. The two professors held workshops for high school teachers around the region and it was becoming increasingly apparent that teachers were having difficulty affording equipment for science experiments. This was when the Biotech-in-a-Box program was born.

The program is primarily funded by the Fralin Endowment, which was previously upheld through the Fralin Biotechnology Center. As opposed to other outreach programs, the program is not funded through grants, guaranteeing that the program can stay for the long run. What makes this program unique from others is that the program doesn’t restrict how the teachers use the kits. Where one teacher could borrow one kit for an AP Bio class, another may borrow five kits to coordinate with four other teachers to use for 20 classes.

“One of the problems with a lot of outreach programs is that they try to tell teachers how to use the materials and mandate how it’s done,” DeCourcy said. “But that’s one thing we avoid. We make the kits available and the teachers put them into the curriculum, wherever it fits with them.”

In addition to removing restrictive barriers, the program excels at maintaining good customer service. Before sending kits to the schools, everything is checked to be sure that it’s working when it leaves Virginia Tech. And if something were to break during transit, the program can overnight supplies to teachers.

The Biotech-in-a-Box program offers five different kits that range from chromatography to immunological tests:

  • The Protein Electrophoresis kit contains equipment and materials needed for polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis of proteins and allows students to design their own experiments to answer questions about evolution and forensics.
  • The Column Chromatography kit contains materials to purify proteins and allows students to separate proteins based on physical characteristics, such as size, charge, and polarity. 
  • The Immunology Introduction kit contains materials to explore the use of antibodies as tools in diagnostic tests. Students learn about how disease spreads using techniques common in medical and forensic fields.
  • The DNA Biotechnology kit contains materials that allow students to analyze DNA by agarose gel electrophoresis. There are ethics and CSI scenarios in the manual.
  • The Caging the Blob kit contains materials needed to teach students about the survival tactics of living organisms. Students construct mazes of Lego blocks to examine how slime mold responds to physical barriers.

If you would like to learn more about the program or how you can access a kit, contact Kristi DeCourcy at decourcy@vt.edu or call (540) 231-7959.

    - Written by Kendall Daniels