- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 21, 2000

Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) has a special place in my heart and skeletal system, digestive tract, brain, eyes, big toe and every other cubic centimeter of my being. This chemical, contained within the nucleus of our cells, carries the genetic coding of species and has interested me since I learned its implications in high school biology class.
Students and amateur geneticists looking for the premier site to unravel the mysterious world of DNA should surf over to this Webby Award-nominated DNA Learning Center site for a multimedia extravaganza.

DNA From the Beginning

Site address: http://vector.cshl.org/dnaftb

Creator:

Located in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., the DNA Learning Center is the world's first science center devoted to public genetics education. It operates as a unit of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, an important center for molecular genetics research. The site was developed by the biomedia group of the center with funding from the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation.

Creator quotable:

"The DNA Learning Center has run teacher-training programs, curriculum programs and summer DNA camps for middle school and high school students for over 10 years," says Shirley Chan, multimedia coordinator for the center. "The Web has given us another venue to educate the public on the science and the scientists behind those buzzwords like DNA, genes and cloning."

Word from the Webwise:

Organized around the key concepts of "Classical Genetics," "Molecules of Genetics" and "Organization of Genetic Material," DNA From the Beginning uses video interviews, image galleries, animation, text and resource links to explore the very fibers of life.
The site uses 32 modules within the three key concept areas. The modules are broken further into smaller sections, completely reinforcing any theory introduced.
Visitors with nothing to do for at least a week should start their on-line journey in 1865 with Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel's pea-plant experiments, which can help visitors understand the fundamentals of inheritance.
Modules then move through chromosomes, DNA discoveries and RNA while ultimately ending with initial investigations into how special DNA enzymes can repair mutations automatically.
All of the pages use a nice mix of current Web technologies to bombard junior geneticists with a staggering amount of information. For example, pick the "Genetic Inheritance Follows Rules" area to find a quick explanation of Mendel's 3-to-1 ratio theory with a cute photo of colorful puppies.
Then, click on each of the module's sections to find Reginald Punnett and William Bateson presenting some laws of inheritance in an animated sequence; a page of images showing the scientists at work; a video clip of Professor Robert Olby examining Mendel's results; a biography of all involved with the discoveries; and links to sites on Mendel.
A friendly female DNA strand with a Laura Petrie coif introduces all of the "problem" sections, which test the visitor's comprehension of material. Consider it an on-line quiz with plenty of visual help.
One aspect of the site that really stands out is the great care taken in presenting in-depth biographies of the people who work with genes. Visitors learn about such eminent scientists as Thomas Hunt Morgan, who won a Nobel Prize for his work on the chromosomal theory of inheritance, or Stanley Lloyd Miller, who designed an environment to simulate the conditions on Earth before life appeared.
Another important feature of the site, the on-line glossary (provided by the National Human Genome Research Institute), concisely explains any term, with an audio clip available to instruct further.
I have seen many sites in the past two years, but I was truly stunned by the incredible array of educational material presented by DNA From the Beginning. This site should stand as a blueprint for Web masters of any teaching discipline to imitate.

Ease of use:

Although visitors with slower modems and older computers will get a bit frustrated at the load times of the multimedia presentations, the site still demands a visit. Each module needs the Macromedia Flash Player, a Real Player and the latest browsers (Microsoft Explorer and Netscape Navigator work equally well).

Family activity:

That female DNA strand hides out in the corner of the "Animation" and "Gallery" pages, ready to display interesting facts and questions to entertain and stump the entire class or clan. Queries such as "Why is DNA double-stranded?" and "If X-rays can cause mutations, how come doctors and dentists still use them to see inside the body?" should keep Mom and Dad scratching their heads and teachers looking for source books.

Don't miss:

Each module contains a photo gallery of unbelievable images. From James Watson and Francis Crick's 6-foot-tall, metal DNA model to a shot of Mendel's microscope to a virus molecule fusing with a cell membrane, this cyber-museum should astound history and science buffs.

Cyber-sitter synopsis:

Children in eighth grade and above should appreciate the painstaking effort involved in the site's creation. However, many concepts can be difficult to digest, so a teacher or knowledgeable parent should be on hand to offer some off-line guidance for the younger student.
Family fun factor: 80 percent
Information grade: A++
Have a cool site about science or health for the family? Write to Joseph Szadkowski at Webwise, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send e-mail to joseph@twtmail.com.

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