DNA Unit – Teacher’s Guide

Welcome! This post has been written with the intention of helping you plan an engaging and comprehensive DNA Unit for your middle school science class. If you’re arriving to this page from somewhere other than the Teachers Pay Teachers site, this is the product that this guide was written for. This is one of my favorite units to teach, and one of the best products that I sell. Here’s how I teach using these resources:

Note: Items are listed in the order in which they would be used. Lessons are not broken into specific “days” as many of us have vastly different timings per class period. 

DNA Extraction Lab
I think it would be fun to start with a lab as a phenomena for this unit. I’ve written this blog post to describe in detail all the steps of the DNA Extraction Lab, so that anyone can do it! It’s uses simple materials and shouldn’t take more than one class period.

DNA Pretest (FREE)
When I start a unit with a pretest I like to ask my students to focus on what they’re reading. Underline words they’re unsure about, and make guesses. I remind them that the first time you’re exposed to new information is always a confusing experience, and encourage them to experience that confusion. Sometimes we go over the answers to the pretest, sometimes I just post them for students to review later when they study for the test.

What is DNA? Presentation
I use this presentation to introduce DNA to my students. There’s a lot of fun facts included like how long would your DNA be if you stretched each strand from each of your cells. And how many books would you DNA fill? How many letter codes is it? Sometimes it’s hard for students to connect to microbiology, and if you can get them excited and fired up at the start, then the rest of your DNA unit should be filled with wonder and amazement! (I love this unit!)

Matching Base Pairs Exit Ticket
It’s imperative that student fully master the task of matching C’s to G’s and A’s to T’s. This practice will serve as a great exit ticket for your introductory DNA lesson. Everyone can succeed with this assignment, so it’s a great chance to build confidence before entering into more challenging assignments. Be sure to pile on the praise and encouragement!

DNA Webquest 
You could assigns this webquest for homework or use it for a sub plan. It’s a best seller in my store and covers 4 main topics: nucleic acids, DNA, amino acids, and enzymes. The questions closely follow the online reading, so this assignment should be easily completed by all.

DNA Model Project
This is a fun project to emphasize the shape and structure of the DNA molecule. In every middle school science class I’ve taught, students come to me with an abysmal lack of chemistry knowledge. I’ve tried everything to supplement that while simultaneously sticking to my (usually state mandated) primary curriculum. If we’re to  effectively teach DNA, we must somehow help our students connect with the unseen world of the microscopic. This project is one way we can help them see the unseen.

If you do complete this project in your class, please send me photos of your completed student work at laneyleeteaches@gmail.com. My own students have historically had the most difficulty in creating a model that doesn’t flop over as soon as they take their hands off it

DNA Replication Presentation
The wonder of DNA only begins with its miraculous structure! Somehow, DNA has managed to replicate itself, making life as we know it possible. DNA replication is an important introduction to understanding the unzipping required for protein synthesis as well as the possibility of mutations. I usually try to stress the vocabulary word “semiconservative” as I explain the process of replication.

Protein Functions Comprehension Reading
Again, macromolecules tend to baffle my middle schoolers. Hopefully, if you completed the DNA Webquest your students will at least have an idea forming in their minds about amino acids and protein assembly. However, if you ask them what a protein (or most adults for that matter) all they’re going to be able to give you is a comment about muscles. Proteins are infinitely more important than in just muscle function! DNA itself does nothing but contain the code for the creation of proteins, so whatever we are must be more closely related to protein than even DNA. At this point, it’s likely that both proteins and DNA remain somewhat abstract in the minds of your students, but I wrote this article to help your students expand their opinion about proteins and begin to see them for the fascinating molecules that they are!

Protein Synthesis Presentation
I like to start with this video to extend the concept of proteins in minds of my students. I love the way he describes the ability of proteins to do work. I’ve never heard the concept explained so simply. Start the video at about 10 minutes and watch for the next 10 minutes.

Now that your students hopefully have an idea of what proteins are important they can begin to study how they’re made.

With the help of several YouTube videos I use this presentation to introduce the concepts of transcription and translation. I’m partial to this one. I just mute it and talk while it plays. Don’t forget you can change the video speed on Youtube as well!

Protein Synthesis Guided Practice
This practice is designed for your struggling learners or as a recap. You could use the presentation as an “I do” and then this assignment as your “we do” and then the final practice as the “you do.” I’d perhaps do this one in segments, stopping to check answers every 5-10 minutes.

Protein Synthesis Practice
Similar to the previous practice, but this time without the explanatory descriptions. Could be homework or do in class.

DNA Quiz
Quiz your students over transcription, translation, and replication. Hopefully this formative assessment will be an experience where your students can feel quite confident! I find we rarely get to do fun science units like this one in the middle school, where memorization is not the focus but rather students get to solve fun “problems.”

Mutations and Genetic Disorders Presentation
If your students are like mine they’ve already been drawing a lot of their own conclusions about mutations throughout this unit. Well, let’s finally show them what it’s all about.

Hopefully if you’ve already covered mitosis/meiosis your students will not have too much trouble grasping chromosome mutations. I’ve included a Cell Cycle Review (#19 in this list) in this bundle to review that info just in case your students are a bit rusty. Maybe you want to do that one before this presentation.

Mutations Practice
After you’ve introduced mutations, it’s time for students to try and decipher them on their own. This is a difficult skill. A lot of my students really struggle at this point, but the quick learners find it absolutely enthralling.

Cancer Webquest
A natural next step with mutations is cancer. Almost every child in your class will likely have some personal experience with cancer, so this DNA unit is an important chance to answer the questions that children naturally have. This can be a tricky one, with a lot of misinformation as well as some students still dealing with grief. As science teachers, this is our job! Don’t miss this opportunity to connect the classroom to your students’ personal lives. I usually take this opportunity to encourage my students to one day be the person who finds the cure! Making me the happiest science teacher in the world!

Cancer Guided Reading
In case you don’t have access to the internet, I decided to write up a guided practice that will cover all your bases on cancer. This assignment includes a graphing extension that you can use for differentiation.

Mutations Quiz
Follow up your mutations lessons with this formative quiz.

Genetic Disorders Project
A wonderful project that I’ve done nearly every year I’ve taught middle school science. I always have my students prepare presentations and get up in front of the class to teach us about their disorder. It helps that my companion English teacher actually teaches presentation skills, so I mark the students with both that rubric and the science content rubric. Don’t forget to keep your audience engaged with feedback forms or some other kind of accountability.

DNA Self Checking Practice
A fun homework or time filling vocabulary review. Great for the days leading up to the test

DNA Color by Number
I’d throw this one in anytime you have extra class time or need something for early finishers.

DNA and Cell Cycle Review
This review should remind your students of the information they already know about the cell cycle. I think it’s important in the DNA unit to bring in cell division at least briefly, since this is when many genetic mutations occur.

DNA Unit Test and Study Guide
Finally, the summative test with study guide! Be sure to make the study guide available to your students with plenty of time!

This product is designed to be affordable and useful to teachers in middle school science. Help me serve you and others through this bundle (or the creation of new resources) by leaving feedback. My work is meaningful when it takes some of the stress off of YOU.

Other Useful Links for your DNA Unit:

  • Make a Karyotype – This is a simple yet fun little interactive where students can drag and drop chromosomes to create their own karyotype.
  • Types of Proteins – I love this interactive for students to explore some protein types and what they do.
  • Mutation Types – Another great interactive for looking at some mutation case studies.
  • Bill Nye: Genes – In my opinion, no middle school science unit is in fact complete without a Bill Nye episode!
  • DNA Vocabulary List – A comprehensive quizlet of important terms made by one of my own students.

Teaching is a weird job. I’d love to connect and discuss our successes and failures on my instagram (@laney.leee). Please reach out and ask me anything.

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Dna Unit