Solar Ovens and DNA Extraction: Middle School Science

At the end of May, Mount Madonna School sixth and seventh graders were able to take a break from their computers and participate in hands-on engineering and science labs. Sixth grade students designed solar ovens and cooked themselves a lunch or dessert, while seventh graders extracted DNA from their own cheek cells.

For the solar oven project, students used materials from around the house – a cardboard box, aluminum foil, plastic wrap, some dark-colored paper, and glue – to construct their solar oven. Several students needed to make adjustments to the list of necessary materials, because they didn’t have everything they needed on hand.

“I was impressed with their adaptability,” said teacher Hilary Alvarado. With no plastic wrap at home, some used a plastic bag with tape. If they didn’t have dark-colored paper, some lined their ovens with more aluminum foil instead. “The ingenuity the students showed marks them as brilliant future engineers.”

Many sixth graders melted marshmallows and chocolate, while others chose to heat frozen pizzas or make quesadillas.

“It was good enough to eat for lunch,” said Will Rowe of his quesadilla. “I’ll make something sweet next.”

Students shared ideas for improving their solar ovens if they were to design another one. For example, using more aluminum foil and designing the oven to capture more sunlight were ideas that students had to increase the temperature inside their solar ovens.

Seventh graders, meanwhile, were able to extract and view DNA from their cheek cells at home! They did this in three steps. First, they collected their cheek cells by swishing with salt water and scraping the sides of their cheeks with their teeth. Next, they mixed the cheek cell solution with a cell lysis solution (soapy water), which broke open the cell membrane and released the DNA. Lastly, they added isopropyl alcohol, which caused the DNA (and some other proteins) to precipitate out of the solution because DNA is not soluble in alcohol.

“This is a lab we usually do in the classroom,” said Alvarado. “I didn’t want them to miss out on this experience so I redesigned the lab so students could successfully do it at home.” To do this, students had to carefully measure the materials to create the correct concentrations of the salt water and cell lysis solutions.

“Frankly, I was surprised that it worked,” commented seventh grader Mordecai Coleman. “I was able to see my DNA!”


Contact: Leigh Ann Clifton, director of marketing & communications, [email protected]

Nestled among the redwoods on 375 acres, Mount Madonna School (MMS) is a community of learners dedicated to creative, intellectual, and ethical growth. MMS supports its students in becoming caring, self-aware, discerning and articulate individuals; and believe a fulfilling life includes personal accomplishments, meaningful relationships and service to society. The CAIS and WASC accredited program emphasizes academic excellence, creative self-expression and positive character development. Located on Summit Road between Gilroy and Watsonville. Founded in 1979.