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Purple-clad Mesa Ridge High School students watch as Katie Hobbs, left, performs a demonstration in her science lab.

A Pikes Peak-area science teacher recently received a STEM grant from the Air Force Academy after completing an intensive biotechnology training program that she said will help make classes more interesting – and fun – for her students.

Katie Hobbs, a chemistry and biology teacher at Mesa Ridge High School, was among a select group of teachers chosen to participate in the Academy’s weeklong Biotechnology Immersion Program, a hands-on seminar on incorporating emerging technologies into the science curriculum.

“It was one of the best trainings I’ve ever been to,” Hobbs said.

Each day, participants went through several lab sessions covering a range of topics including data collection and analysis, DNA amplification and blood typing. They also performed COVID-19 testing on themselves in order to gain a better understanding of the process.

“We swabbed ourselves, prepared the samples, ran them through a (polymerase chain reaction) machine, and then read the data to determine if any of us had COVID, ” she said. “It was great to experience that process in real time. And none of us had COVID, by the way.”

A polymerase chain reaction machine, or PCR, is a lab apparatus that can separate and amplify DNA to allow scientists to study it closely. The device can be used to test for infectious pathogens including HIV, malaria, anthrax and COVID-19. Hobbs said she has ordered one for her advanced-placement biology class.

“It’s very cool,” Hobbs said of the PCR machine. “I can’t wait to get mine.”

Hobbs was able to purchase the lab device thanks to a $2,000 STEM grant from the Air Force Academy. Her students won’t be using the PCR to test each other for the coronavirus, but she has several “really cool” plans for the device, one of which will require some detective work from her students.

“The kids will use the machine to figure out which bacteria infected a group of people at a (fictional) party,” Hobbs said. “They’ll analyze different strains and track down exactly what made people sick – the chips, the dip, the soda, etc.”

The training made Hobbs take a hard look at her teaching style and identify ways to improve, she said.

“I’ve been teaching for 17 years, but there’s always room for growth,” she said. “So much is changing in the field of biology because of advances in technology, and I’m excited to incorporate some of those advancements into my own teaching.”

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