Skip directly to content

Laboratory Science, In Color

on Wed, 01/07/2015 - 16:57

The goal of lab science is often to “take the abstract and make it concrete”. Michael Pellegrini's words ring quite true in the multi-faceted lab work students conduct in his Think Tank biology class. Michael, who is a life-long biology enthusiast, has managed to translate what is clearly a profound passion into a bright and colorful curriculum. During the Fall 2014 semester, Michael guided students through multiple hands-on labs (which included a field trip to Anna Maria College in Paxton) and even viewed the science fiction film Gattaca and discussed how genetics influenced its story and art.

The final lab of this past semester had students exploring plasmids and their unique relationship with our genetic world. Plasmids are DNA molecules that are physically independent from chromosomal DNA molecules. They can also be responsible for specific traits which make organisms survive or adapt in an exclusive environment. To illustrate how this is used in modern biology, Michael introduced the students to pGLO. pGLO is an engineered plasmid that contains a gene called GFP, which enables an organism to produce a green fluorescent protein. It also contains a gene that enables an organism to inactivate ampicillin (a commonly used  antibiotic for treating bacterial infections). The GFP gene was originally isolated from a species of bioluminescent jellyfish known as Aequoria victoria. When exposed to ultraviolet light, GFP will glow a bright green.

The goal of the lab is to demonstrate how pGLO acts as an important indicator in bacterial specimens. Students began by culturing the E. coli bacteria in a Luria agar (a nutritionally rich substance for bacteria growth). The specimens were introduced to a heat shock treatment which prepares the bacteria to more easily absorb other ingredients, in this case ampicillin, pGLO, and arabinose (a simple sugar that activates the GFP in pGLO). Out of four E. coli specimens, three received ampicillin, two of which received pGLO(one with arabinose and one without). Under ultraviolet light, we see that the arabinose has, in fact, activated the GFP, confirming that the pGLO plasmids have successfully merged with the E. coli bacteria. With this experiment, scientists can effectively track the movement and growth of plasmids that include GFPs. When the GFP protein is paired with other less visible but desirable traits in a plasmid, they can be certain the plasmid has been taken up by the organism if it glows! 

As Michael walked me through the the lab, I appreciated how each step engaged the senses in a different way. I observed the students carefully measuring their ingredients, submerging samples between specific hot and cold temperatures, relocating to the unofficial dark room to shed some ultraviolet light on the subject, and finally sitting around and talking about what they had experienced. The multi-class lab was sprinkled with Michael’s passionate lectures, but this was never without student inclusion. He frequently made a point to stop and visit each student with a new question, or ask someone to revisit a previously discussed concept. To learn about Michael's upcoming biology class or to register, click here.

Photos: (top) Michael explains the experiment for guests during an extended lab session open to Think Tank families. (middle) pGLO treated bacteria shines under ultraviolet light. (bottom) Students prepare their specimens for the final step.

Reading & Revolution

on Wed, 11/12/2014 - 17:03

The core which connects everything discussed in Explorative Lit: Allegory and Satire (running this fall) is Orwell’s famous masterpiece, Animal Farm.  While conversing about the class, Adam Zelny explained that he chose the book both for its multifaceted nature and it’s evocative power within the context of our modern culture.  He hopes that students will take in Orwell’s messages about culture and government- still entirely relevant almost 70 years later- and perhaps find motivation to change the conditions that led Orwell to write his works, or at least consider their place within them.  Animal Farm’s extensive use of satire is ideal for this purpose, as few tools are better suited to spark introspection.

A critical piece of the class is its analysis of the Russian Revolution, which runs parallel to the plot of Animal Farm.  Students learn the key events and figures of the revolution, as well as its repercussions up to World War II.  This allows them to better appreciate the allegorical tools that Animal Farm employs; most of its characters directly symbolize some aspect of revolutionary Russia, whether it be propaganda, Stalin, or the working class.

This historical study is balanced with creative writing assignments which function as channels of expression; for example, the class was told to write a short story depicting a communist society.  This kind of extensive and very personal exploration allows students to achieve a more advanced understanding of their own ideas, and develop them further than they might be able to in a traditional classroom setting.  Instilling a passion for writing is the last and most important goal of the course; in Adam’s own words, to allow students to learn and experience courage and motivation to write.

Taken from the 1954 animated film adaptation (above), the animals read the commandments written on the barn.

Between Matte and Glossy

on Thu, 10/23/2014 - 16:42

Think Tank programs tend to nurture the reward of hands-on experience, where students leave with distinct memories or physical representations of a given class. Students construct digital and physical models in 3D Design. They explore challenging experiments in Contextual Chemistry and leave with vivid memories. Video Production workshops culminate in final movies indefinitely preserved online. And, in the case of Applied Digital Photography, artistic visions are preserved both in print and digitally. 

Photography perseveres as one of our most important forms of visual art and communication. As a hundred thousand stills compose an elaborate feature film, just one photograph may convey a profound concept, or perhaps a simple sentiment. For the final project in last semester's Digital Photography workshop, Tyler Trahan challenged his students to tackle the latter; how can you tell a story through a photo, and what will that story say? During class sessions students studied some technical elements of photography, such as exposure, aperture, depth of field, etc., and most importantly composition.

While discussing the workshop, Tyler explained that a still image contains more than what the eye instantly perceives.  Beyond our immediate recognition of things, there are patterns that might instill a certain emotion. Curving lines are calming, Tyler explained, whereas perpendicularity signifies stability, and angles generate excitement. He encouraged the students to be aware of these patterns as they considered what they're final project would be about. Throughout the workshop they explored several theme-based assignments with an experimental approach. For example, when asked to capture motion in a photo, student Joshua Dick tied glow sticks to his sneakers and ran on a treadmill in the dark.

And so the students began to take pictures. Some were taken at home, some in and around Think Tank, and some were captured during a field trip to Rutland State Park where a decrepit prison camp remains from the early 1900s. In Sam Dodson's photo titled Ashes (above), from a series that depicts pivotal moments in board games, he chose a diptych (two panelled) protrayal of a Jenga tower, first crumbled and then tall and complete. Tyler and I talked of the potential symbolism behind Sam's piece and how its title may signify a rebirth (if perceived from left ot right). Lydia Hart, a student not only fond of horseback riding but also quite passionate about the animals, chose to intimately document a horse and its environment at a farm. Trust (right) is one of six images in a series. Again, Tyler pointed out the significance of meaning here. Lydia's connection to the subject matter is clearly conveyed. You can view more photos from Applied Digital Photography and more HERE.

Tyler Trahan is a professional photographer and former Worcester Think Tank student. Visit to view Tylers work and for booking.

Creatively Recording Science

on Thu, 09/25/2014 - 15:42

When Lauren Monroe and I considered what we wanted to achieve with the Macro to Micro: Multimedia Science class, we revisited the notion of teaching to teach. That is, encouraging those who have acquired knowledge to relay it back to the world in a new and creative way. Our goal, with this class, is to introduce students to a diverse variety of science-based experiments and document our findings via a multimedia approach. As we conduct and record experiments both familiar and new, we ask: How can we teach this concept differently?

In our first two classes we explored how the liquid chemical compounds hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) and bleach (NaClO) can be mixed together to produce a gas. When combined, each compound releases an oxygen molecule, leaving NaCl (salt) and H2O (water) as the remaining liquid. The reaction occurs so quickly that the oxygen (O2) rushes out as a newly formed gas and mingles with the air. What can you do with such a reaction? Watch the video below and find out!

View more videos from the Macro to Micro class HERE!