National exhibit engages UMR students to focus on genomics education, community outreach

September 20, 2018

Genome 5

One thing that makes the University of Minnesota Rochester (UMR) unique is its ability to connect students to once-in-a-lifetime experiences with leading national organizations that will further their educational experiences. This is achieved through collaborations with institutions like Mayo Clinic and the Mayo Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program, or the Special Research Student (SRS) program.

More recently, it was through a traveling exhibit, Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code,” from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and the National Institutes of Health’s National Human Genome Research Institution in association with Science North.

Walking throughout the skyway or driving around Rochester, posters and billboards are visible stating, “You share 50 percent of your genes with this banana.” This eye-catching campaign advertised “Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code,” sponsored by Mayo Clinic and held at the Rochester Art Center. “Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code” combined a science exhibit with an art exhibition focused on genomics from June 22 to September 21.

Kelliann Fee-Schroeder, Education Coordinator with the Mayo Clinic Center for Individualized Medicine (CIM) first saw the exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. when she attended a genomics conference in 2014 and knew that it needed to be exhibited in Rochester.

Genome 3

“One of the goals for the Center for Individualized Medicine is to translate the science and research of genomics into clinical practice,” says Fee-Schroeder. “We want to educate the public and increase genomic literacy. This exhibit was the perfect opportunity to introduce genetics and genomics to the public and highlight what CIM is doing to bring research into clinical practice.”

When Fee-Schroeder presented her idea to bring the traveling exhibit to Rochester, CIM leadership was on board. To expand their educational capacity, CIM reached out to the University of Minnesota Rochester to help make the exhibit more hands-on.

This is where UMR’s connections with the Rochester community came into play. Dr. Kelsey Metzger is a passionate researcher and professor of Integrated Biology and Health Sciences. Metzger worked closely with CIM to ensure that those attending the exhibit could get the most out of their experience. One of the ways they accomplished this was through community education events. She hosted a weekly book club with facilitated discussions about personalized medicine. Additionally, every Wednesday, they had guest speakers presenting on topics associated with genomics.

Genome 1

In July and August, Metzger spearheaded free family days. She offered science story times, had coloring sheets available for families to create self-portraits and allowed attendees to make a DNA molecule. The main attraction, however, was the DNA extraction of bananas. When doing this activity in her classroom, she uses about 20 bananas. For the community events, she needed to come up with a creative solution to tailor the activity to about 400 people per day.

The solution came through calling upon UMR students for help.

An engagement team of six students from UMR's Community Collaboratory course spent the summer session working closely with organizers of the exhibit. They received docent training, assisted guests, led tours, created documents for schools and tours and provided support for event days. Their goal was to address public appreciation and understanding of the scientific process and the role of genomic science in quality of life of the general public.

Kaitlyn Kottke, a sophomore at UMR, took a genetics class with Dr. Metzger in the spring semester of her freshman year which sparked her interest in genetic diversity and learning more about how genes are distributed. When asked, Kottke was thrilled to help with the exhibit. She volunteered to read stories during science story times and help lead the banana DNA extraction.

Genome 6

“I want to be a pediatric physician’s assistant, so interacting with the children during family days was a great experience and a lot of fun,” says Kottke. “Children are very smart and it was great to see kids walk away from our activities saying ‘I have the same color eyes as my dad because of our genes.’ I loved that they were understanding the things I was telling them.”

UMR students also had the opportunity to serve as docents, being available to answer questions as attendees walked throughout the exhibit and helping with debriefing and sense-making as they exited.

Encounters like these are core to the student experience at UMR. UMR Faculty in the Center for Learning Innovation (CLI) promote a learner-centered, technology-enhanced, concept-driven and community-integrated learning environment. The hands-on experience Kottke and others receive is a result of evidence-based, relationship-focused practices at UMR and is one of the many ways that faculty involve their students in the community.

“It was a great experience to be a part of,” Metzger says. “It was a great exhibit that brought together community partners. Our students got to be a part of it and I believe they not only learned but also had a lot of fun.”