WHILE many fifth- and sixth-graders are content to watch animated sci-fi television shows, 18 of their academically gifted peers recently passed up ``Transformers'' and ``Mutant Ninja Turtles'' to make science history. For them, the latest biotechnology techniques became kid stuff during three Saturdays spent at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island. The students were manipulating DNA, the basic hereditary material of organic life. For the first time, junior gene-jockeys used restriction enzymes, the main tool of today's molecular biologists, to cut DNA molecules and then separate the fragments through gel electrophoresis.
``It's important to understand this stuff,'' says fifth-grader Cindy Levine, ``because it's part of our future.''
``No students your age anywhere in the world have done these experiments,'' DNA Learning Center director David Micklos told them. If Mr. Micklos has his way, however, students across the country will be as avid about genes as they currently are about jeans.
Sponsoring the program was Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory's DNA Learning Center, the world's first facility devoted solely to biotechnology education. Dr. James Watson, director of the laboratory and co-director of the federal project to sequence the human genome, worries about cultural lag on the part of the American public, which doesn't ``know the language of heredity.'' Watson himself has no such ignorance, since he, along with Francis Crick, won the Nobel Prize for the 1953 discovery of the structure of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid, the material in chromosomes of all living organisms).
Since 1985, the DNA Literacy Program has taught 5,000 high school students and their teachers how genes work, through hands-on experience with the basic techniques of manipulating the DNA molecule. Micklos and his crew frequently ``backpack'' the high-tech lab equipment (identical to that used in real research labs) all over the country in a silver ``Vector'' van, offering workshops they hope will be replicated in many more schools.
Although the primary goal is to train high school teachers in molecular genetics and update science curricula, the DNA team has taught audiences as diverse as rural Alabama youth in the poorest counties in the nation, Navajo teen-agers at a reservation school in Arizona, and a senior-citizen class where the average student's age was 70.
Why is it important that the public be aware of the genetic revolution? ``It's part of the knowledge base,'' says Joseph Sambrook, chairman of biochemistry at the University of Texas Health Science Center, who pioneered the DNA fingerprinting experiment carried out by the elementary school pupilss. ``It's important to get across to kids the intellectual power of the ideas of modern molecular biology. Genetics is the most intellectually beautiful science - it's like chess.''
But why should 10 and 11-year-olds forfeit three Saturdays of cartoons to peer through a microscope at fruit fly mutations, observe hereditary patterns in corn kernels, construct a model of the DNA molecule using pop-beads, and slice and splice genes? ``A fine mind at whatever age deserves to be challenged to its limit,'' says Micklos. In addition, ``if we can get these young kids to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they can do it, then it's obvious anyone can do it.''
Reversing student's declining interest in science motivates Micklos's dream of making DNA 101 part of every pre-college science curriculum. ``All the data says the fifth- and sixth-graders love science,'' Micklos says, ``but half the kids don't like science by the time they get through high school. It's getting beat out of them by a lousy system.''
The Educational Testing Service apparently agrees that teaching DNA manipulation should become part of the curriculum for advanced, college-bound students. ETS will recommend laboratory experiments to cleave DNA with restriction enzymes for advanced-placement high school biology students this fall, with these experiments likely being performed by some 60,000 advanced-placement students by 1993-94.
The cost of equipping a lab to perform these experiments in molecular biology is between $5,000 and $15,000, but Dr. Pollack emphasizes the cost of failing to retool science education. ``It's incomprehensible why the federal government cooperates with our economic competitors in decapitating this country's intellectual and scientific future. Kids are still learning today what people my age learned, which is 30 years old. In biology, 30 years is more than a generation, it's a new field.''
John Burris, executive director of the Commission on Life Sciences of the National Research Council, cites a recent study indicating that, in the 1990s, 18,000 new PhDs - ``only the tip of the pyramid'' of indispensible science professionals - will be needed in the United States. Only 12,000 are predicted. ``To produce those people and a scientifically literate public which can make informed decisions about science,'' Mr. Burris says, ``is essential.''
Not only predicted shortages of trained scientists and concerns about scientific illiteracy on public policy issues have spurred the federal government to action. American students' poor showing on science and math tests has spurred the US Department of Education into allocating more than $127 million this year to improve pre-college math and science programs.
The National Science Foundation, after being basically shut down in the area of education early in the decade, now has a budget of $110 million for elementary and secondary science education. ``We need an educated citizenry that can distinguish between astrology and astronomy,'' says Bassam Shakhashiri, the foundation's assistant director for science and engineering education. ``Science education is a very serious national security concern as well as an economic security concern. We risk becoming a second-rate power unless we address these issues.''
YET some question whether pushing genetics in schools will restore America's technical prowess. ``I'm concerned about the overemphasis on molecular biology to the exclusion of other key elements, such as major environmental issues which haven't come into the curriculum,'' says Roger O. Anderson, professor of natural sciences at Columbia University in New York and a former secondary-school biology instructor. ``I hardly think [having] every high school student doing gel electrophoresis would be money well spent in a curriculum with many other demands. It's more important to understand the concepts than use expensive lab equipment.''
Those who favor teaching molecular biology argue that outfitting labs to achieve DNA literacy is just as important as equipping all pre-college science labs with microscopes or emphasizing computer literacy for youngsters. They say that the moral and ethical questions raised by the new technology also make familiarity with the procedures imperative.
The fifth- and sixth-graders' participation in the gene revolution clearly revved up their interest and imagination. Nicholas Gonzales dreams of bioengi-neering a ``superhuman ... who could do everything better and faster than a human.'' Danny Davis speculates about manipulating genes to ``make some guys with wings or metal skin.'' But the ethical issues seem to be beyond the purview of the course. When asked if he worries that genetic tampering might be abused, Danny answers, ``Not really. I'm just a kid. That's not my concern.''
Making rational decisions about the ramifications of biotechnology should be everyone's concern, according to Micklos: ``These kids will be living in a very different world in 10 years.''
People will soon be faced with decisions about a wealth of genetic information. ``This information can be used properly to the great good of society and individuals, but there are personal, legal, and ethical implications of what's going on in biology today,'' Micklos says. ``We're not preparing people for the gene age. If we miss the boat with this generation, we'll be in sad, sad shape.''
At the same time, Micklos acknowledges that his course deals only with the technology of manipulating the gene - the ``how-to,'' not the ``why,'' ``why not,'' or ``watch out.'' Walter MacDonald, ETS's director of test development for national assessment of educational progress, says students ``need to be aware of the pros and cons of releasing genetically engineered organisms into the environment. The use of all these critters new to the earth raises serious ecological questions.''
Atlthough the students may not be at a stage where they can address the ramifications, they certainly performed like champs on the most advanced 20th-century technology ever attempted by kids their age.
``They can do it!'' says Micklos. ``The quality of their gels is actually slightly better than what we normally see with a group of high school teachers and students.''
Sixth-grader Allison Serpe fairly glows, describing her reaction to the experiment: ``I loved it. I love science. I'm going to keep on trying new things. I wanted to be a lawyer before, but now I want to be a scientist.''
``This is the same girl who in fifth grade said `uck' to everything,'' says Lynn Beegle, her teacher. ``She wouldn't even look through a microscope because she was afraid she'd see something yucky. Now she sees the beauty in science.''