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Vol. LIX, No. 14
July 13, 2007

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'Felix the Helix' Introduces DNA to Elementary Students

  Felix the Helix (second from r, and really NHGRI's Melissa Meredith) joins a genome institute cast onstage at the Oyster Bilingual School cafeteria. The ensemble taught kids about science and DNA.  
  Felix the Helix (second from r, and really NHGRI's Melissa Meredith) joins a genome institute cast onstage at the Oyster Bilingual School cafeteria. The ensemble taught kids about science and DNA.  
The 250 five-, six- and seven-year-olds gathered in the Oyster Bilingual School cafeteria hushed in the expectation of a visitor to be introduced at their morning assembly on May 29. With an air of celebrity and accompanied by six friendly helpers, an amusing new children's character took the stage. Forty minutes later, the students celebrated their new knowledge of genetics by singing along to the DNA Song with Felix the Helix.

Felix is the featured performer in a National Human Genome Research Institute youth outreach performance. It debuted at the Oyster School on Calvert St., NW, after months of planning by Melissa Meredith, genetics fellow, and Hailey Edwards, a post-baccalaureate trainee with the Medical Genetics Branch's Gahl lab. The main goals of the production are to promote interest in science and to teach that all living things have DNA; this amazing molecule is the blueprint for what makes people unique and needs to be protected. Five other members of the Gahl lab joined Felix's supporting cast.

"We wanted to do something that would get children interested in science as an active topic, and I think it's important for children to learn about genetics at an early age," Meredith said.

This isn't her first time in a costume (that's her behind Felix's sunglasses). Meredith did a similar youth outreach project at the Mayo Clinic and played Henry the Hand to teach kids the importance of hand washing. When she came to NHGRI 2 years ago, she formed the idea for Felix the Helix, but the concept didn't get off the ground until Edwards joined the Gahl lab and expressed a similar interest.

The two made the costume themselves, constructing the character out of a nylon kiddie play tunnel and repurposed pool noodles.

Their labor drew giggles from the crowd as Felix lumbered onto the stage wearing his clown shoes and a big, red smile.

Angelica Garcia, another post-baccalaureate trainee, escorted Felix and translated part of the presentation into Spanish. Garcia said of DNA education for young children, "It's hard to understand, so we try to break it down into simpler terms."

In the morning's first activity, an instruction manual of DNA - with some help from the rows of children dressed in bright summer dresses and shorts - pointed out how a person fit together (demonstrated comically by geneticist Mike Kaiser). The next interactive element brought an eager group of audience members to the stage, each holding an A, T, C or G on colored paper. Staff scientist Heidi Dorward helped participants find their buddies-A's with T's, C's with G's - to form a double-stranded DNA model. Geneticist Wendy Introne explained how the DNA folded and wound around to form a Slinky-like double helix.

In a question-and-answer activity, the young audience delivered enthusiastic, unanimous responses. Does a soccer ball have DNA? "No!" Does a flamingo have DNA? "Yes!"

The last and arguably most important lesson of the day came from geneticist Tom Markelow with his explanation of how ultraviolet rays from the sun can harm DNA - and the children's new friend Felix. Sunscreen and hats were encouraged as ways to fight off the evil UV rays. "Even if you're a child, you can understand danger. Understanding that there is a reason for using sunscreen can help, even at a young age," Meredith said. She and the rest of the Felix team reprised their show at Deer Park Elementary School in Centreville, Va., on June 13. With help from teacher evaluations from the Oyster Bilingual School, they honed their messages and improved their techniques. The Felix team has also been invited back to Oyster to perform in its summer program. Alexa Barrett, an Oyster school kindergartener, got more than one thing out of her Felix experience. "I know the A goes with the T and the G goes with the C," she recited as she fingered her new bracelet, a pipe-cleaner-and-bead creation that turned color in the sun. It was a tool the Felix team handed out to illustrate that UV rays affect DNA. NIH Record Icon

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