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Location used for environmental testing.

Curious Minds

Unlocking Curious Minds 2020
Pilot project with DNAiTECH and Haeata Community Campus.



We commenced our journey with our students, to study the tributaries of Te Waihora, using for the first time in Aotearoa New Zealand, the DNAiTECH, DNA technologies designed specifically for secondary education. As part of the first days program, we explored selected key Curious Minds of history, whose passion for inquiry and creative ingenuity led to significant discoveries in biology, including Aristotle, Leeuwenhoek, Hooke, Redi, Pasteur, Mendel, Darwin, Flemming, Franklin, Watson & Crick. We had a great first day that started with mihi whakatau and kai.

The second day involved a teaching component. The 20th century saw the elucidation of bio molecular nano machinery and today we harness these tools for molecular diagnostics. Today’s students are the genomics generation, COVID-19 shows us how powerful molecular tools are part of everyday life. And so, with the development of DNAiTECH, DNA testing comes to the classroom. On the second day the students were learning to set up the DNAiTECH and set App parameters for experiments later in the week. They also worked on their NCEA credits for this project on Te Waihora, establishing their hypotheses for their experiments.


The highlight of the 3rd day was our gathering with Te Waihora interest groups. We were so excited to welcome onto Haeata Campus Te Maiariki Williams from Te Taumutu Rūnanga, Denise Ford from Selwyn District Council, Jarred Arthur, and David Murphy from Environment Canterbury and Hamish Rennie from Lincoln University representing the Waihora Ellesmere Trust. After a mihi whakatau we enjoyed kai while students from the junior school entertained beautifully with waiata. Our senior students received so much from our guests, each one spoke well and thoughtfully, bringing their perspectives, revealing a passion for Te Waihora, its unique qualities, and their care for this environment. Our students came away from our hui  engaged, filled up, perhaps overflowing with information. This journey was indeed a stretching experience, which is just how it should be!


On day four we were very pleased to have Dr. Susie Wood from the Cawthron Institute speak of her team's work on the 300+ lakes project. Taking core sediment samples from the center of lakes in Aotearoa enables mapping of the changes in microbe biodiversity over time using environmental DNA. It is such a powerful method. One example from a lake in the Wairarapa showed a dramatic change in organisms occurring in the 1800's. In this instance, colonial introductions of game fish species have disturbed the ecology, leading to a devastating loss of native species and ecological imbalance. Other examples where deforestation, dairying, leaching of fertilizers and nutrients, the impact of urbanization close to waterway have led to dramatic loss of water quality in so many of our lakes, loss of native biodiversity, the build-up of microorganisms such as E. coli and cyanobacteria. Susie also shared her journey as a young woman in science, her love of the outdoors as a teenager, and those familial influences that led her to become an environmental scientist. The students also practiced their pipetting and then we had a demonstration of the DNAiTECH running real-time DNA amplification of cyanobacteria DNA.


On day 5  we embarked on our Curious Minds field trip to obtain our water samples from tributaries to Te Waihora. After karakia, with our vans loaded up, we headed out into the elements, a cold, damp midwinter adventure. The first stop was at the Kaituna River. One of the vans dung into the soft terrain there and required some muscle to get it back on the road. From Kaituna, we sampled at the lakeside, and then we traveled around the lake from the north side to the south, sampling most of the waterways. Sampling the rivers were made easy by our extension pole device, one or two-liter samples were taken at 10 collection sites. It was obvious that some waterways were quite healthy, others were cloudy and appeared degraded. It will be very interesting to see if the DNA testing for ecoli and cyanobacteria results match the visual appearances of these rivers.


At one stop at Coes Ford, Dr. Susi Wood jumped off the bridge into the Selwyn river and excitedly pulled out some stones covered with cyanobacteria. These would be tested the following week to see if they are the toxic variety? Our hardy group found the trip was great fun, the beach at Taumutu was spectacular with the southerly roaring and foam covered surf rolling in.

At timber Yard point we were privileged to have Counsellor Craig Pauling from Environment Canterbury meet with us and talk about his connection and memories of Te Waihora, how it was before it degraded by intensive farming and then seriously further damaged by the Wahine storm in the 70s. It was a great day, freezing temperatures, warm spirits, reinforced by copious quantities of chocolate, peanut butter sandwiches and chips at Leeston on the way home. 


Day 6 we extracted the DNA from our water samples. The students used syringes and filter units, collecting the microorganisms from the river samples onto filters, something which sounds easy but in some cases required lots of elbow grease (kiwi slang for muscle) to get the more murky river samples through the filters. Once the microbes were collected, we cracked the cells open with detergent and heat. These DNA samples were safely stashed away in the freezer, ready for DNAiTECH testing.

After that, the students worked on their NCEA tasks as part of this project. Brittney and Morgan, our Haeata science teachers put together detailed personalized manuals for all the students, each has its own NCEA tasks. This project offers the potential for up to 20 credits towards achieving their 2020 NCEA. 


On day 7 we analyzed 11 samples on the DNAiTECH instruments, testing for E Coli and for anatoxin secreting cyanobacteria in the Te Waihora tributaries. This initial test was to screen the samples qualitatively to see which were the most interesting in terms of contamination by these organisms.

We detected E Coli in the Kaituna river, the Ararira/ LII river, at Harts Creek (goat point…so named because of the solitary goat perturbed by our intrusion into his universe) and in the Selwyn at Coes Ford bridge. Cyanobacteria were present also at these same sites and in another small stream which was unnamed on our map. While it was good news for our students’ project that we have these positive samples, its sad news for our environment and vividly shows the impact modern life especially intensive farming has had on our waterways. Now that we have screened these samples, the students will repeat the testing and make quantitative measurements on the DNAiTECH.

We also tested the river water samples for cloudiness, using a borrowed spectrophotometer. For some of the student, their hypothesis was to  test whether higher river cloudiness was more associated with higher levels of E. coli or cyanobacteria. Our conclusion from day 7, it was a great success!


The students reanalysed the river water samples for cyanobacteria and E coli using six DNAiTECH instruments. The previous days tests were qualitative, but today’s tests were quantitative. We included a series of calibration samples containing known amounts of the bacterial DNA. At the end of the day we had the data for both E. coli and for cyanobacteria from our river samples. We confirmed our previous finding that a number of rivers into Te Waihora contain either or both E coli and cyanobacteria. The most striking example was the sample taken by Dr Susie Wood at the Coes Ford bridge. Susie had retrieved rocks that visibly contained a slimy material that had the physical characteristics of cyanobacteria. Of course, visually one cannot tell if it is the toxin producing variety of cyanobacteria. However, here lies the power of DNA technologies, by testing for the presence of a specific anatoxin gene. The DNAiTECH experiment demonstrated that the toxic variety of cyanobacteria was present and our solution contained 32 million cyanobacterial copies of DNA in 200ml. So dog owners, keep your pet pooch away from the Coes Ford Selwyn river, dogs love to chew this stuff and it is can be deadly.



Science is not all experiments and field trips…if only! On the 9th day the hard grind of writing began, pondering one’s hypothesis, what the data showed, putting pen to paper, and reporting on our two weeks of study. There were a good number of NCEA credits on the line here for each student and the write up is a key part of those achievements. So, it was heads down, and cogs whirring! But there was some relief, day 9  was a student half-day at Haeata.

Day 10 was our last day of Unlocking Curious Minds at Haeata Community Campus. It has was an incredible journey, very intense and rewarding, for many of our students a dive into the deep end of the swimming pool of science. We gathered in the auditorium and reflected on those Curious Minds of history who have helped elucidate some of the mysteries of biology. So much ground has been covered in these last two weeks, from cells to genes to amazing nano-machines that enable DNA technologies, but not only in theory, we broke new ground by introducing hands-on DNA amplification in the classroom to investigate a real-world environmental study of tributaries into Te Waihora. We had kai and the students received their certificates for participating in the program. The rest of the day involved some work on the write up, discussions, quizzes, student feedback, and morphed into a final conversation about all manner of things, from nature & nurture, developmental biology, cloning, and CRISPR, technological possibilities, and ethical considerations. The mere fact that such discussions spontaneously occurred in the last session, of the last day, of an intense two weeks, is the Unlocking Curious Mind vision realized. I come away from this experience full, enriched, appreciative of this great group of students, our fantastic teachers Brittney and Morgan, and the Haeata Community Campus, a unique modern teaching environment urban area school with a very rich culture.​

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