George Lucas Educational Foundation

The DNA of Learning: Teens Tackle Animal Poaching Through Genetics

Eleventh-grade biotechnology students use DNA barcoding to help save endangered African wildlife. More to this story.
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The DNA of Learning: Teens Tackle Animal Poaching Through Genetics (Transcript)

Jay Vavra: Let's get started. So we're gonna start with our simulated bush meat today. And we have three samples.

Voice Over: Something big is happening in this eleventh grade biology class.

Student 1: We're trying to actually kinda change the world a little bit.

Jay Vavra: We thought up a lesson that would incorporate aspects in molecular biology, bioinformatics, evolution, ecology, zoology, biochemistry. And so we created a way to teach all those things together. You wanna check it out, describe, write down some observations, what it smells like, what it looks like.

Voice Over: Jay Vavra's students are learning to identify meat using DNA barcoding. The ultimate goal of the project is to develop forensic techniques that can be used by African law enforcement officials to combat poaching, by identifying the meat and fur of illegally hunted wildlife.

Jay Vavra: These are photos that I got last week from one of our collaborators in Nairobi. This is an eland.

Elizabeth Kurtz: I think it's interesting because it's relative to something that's going on in real life, and not only that, but it's like a crisis, it's like an issue.

Jay Vavra: I really believe in original research to discover something and the students know what they're doing has an application. It's not just going to the teacher's grade book and such.

Student 2: Point one which is that line and point five, so you're like--

Mari Jacobson: You always hear about this kind of science being used in the real world to fight crime and all that, but here we actually get to partake in that, which is really great.

Student 2: Is it enough? No.

Student 3: No, it's not enough.

Voice Over: Like many high tech teachers, Dr. Vavra brings a wealth of experience and passion into the classroom from his previous professional life.

Jay Vavra: I love all aspects of biology and worked in the biotech industry. I worked in archeology. I've also done research in Antarctica and northern California and different areas in biological sciences, and then try to bring that into my classroom.

Jay Vavra: Instead of grades on high stakes tests at the end of the year, students are assessed on their contribution to a final class product. In this case, it's the creation of the forensics workshop that will be given in Africa.

Jay Vavra: We started a project last year and took nine students to east Africa and met with collaborators there. Found that there was a great need for this in Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. And we talked about going back and setting up the workshop.

Openye Vincent: So without DNA, I don't see us succeeding in prosecution of wildlife cases in east Africa.

Kit Haggard: This isn't [inaudible] what we're doing. This is just a regular biology class. Everything we're learning is completely relevant.

Now you put it in there and we'll take it back over there.

Jay Vavra: I know they're engaged and they believe in what they're doing. They're going to teach others at conferences, and so they know there's a next step to this.

Mari Jacobson: I know everyone's really serious about it, 'cause it's a serious issue, but this is really a lot more fun than you'd be able to do in any other classroom, because you're actually-- it's gives you kind of a sense of importance.

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Video Credits

Produced and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Written by

  • Carl Bidleman

Coordinating Producer

  • Amy Erin Borovoy


  • Karen Sutherland

Production Assistants

  • Doug Keely
  • Neil Tan

Camera Crew

  • Rob Weller
  • Darren Kawasaki


  • Michael Pritchard

Additional Footage and Stills Courtesy of

  • Jay Vavra

On June 27, 2009, High Tech High biotech teacher Jay Vavra and several of his students returned to Tanzania to hold a bushmeat-identification workshop to help local wildlife-protection officials fight poaching. For more information, go to the group's Web site, High Tech High African Bushmeat Expedition, and read the expedition journal. (Watch a trailer for Students of Consequence, the students' award-winning documentary about their 2008 expedition.)

View all our videos about High Tech High:

Transformed by Technology: High Tech High Overview
A network of K-12 public charter schools uses rigorous projects and portfolio assessments to revolutionize learning.

The DNA of Learning: Teens Tackle Animal Poaching Through Genetics
Eleventh-grade biotechnology students use DNA barcoding to help save endangered African wildlife.

Team Teaching: Two Teachers, Three Subjects, One Project
A pair of educators are sanguine about their art, biology, and multimedia program.

Adult-World Connections: An Internship with Real Impact for Rescuers
A high school intern improves emergency-helicopter communications for San Diego's police and fire departments.

High Tech, Higher Learning: A School Grows Its Own Teachers
This school has its own master's plan for developing the educators it needs.

Taking the Lead: An Interview with Larry Rosenstock
High Tech High's founding principal and CEO speaks about its innovative teaching and learning model.

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