David Micklos, executive director and founder of the DNA Learning...

David Micklos, executive director and founder of the DNA Learning Center at Cold Spring Harbor, on Sept. 8. 2014. Credit: Steve Pfost

David Micklos, executive director of the DNA Learning Center in Cold Spring Harbor, says the key to science literacy is hands-on experiments.

"I've always thought that [students] should do something that's as close as possible to what scientists do," he says.

Hired by the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (with which the center is affiliated) in 1982 to handle public relations, Micklos soon realized his passion was education. The programs that would evolve into the DNA Learning Center started in 1985.

The center's three locations (there are satellite facilities in Harlem and Lake Success) welcomed 21,000 students last year.

An additional 10,000 participated in in-school instruction by learning center staff, and online and app resources totaled 5 million visits.

A $25 million expansion of the Harlem location is in the works. The center also has a collaboration with Beijing No. 166 high school.

"It's just the business of letting kids get their hands dirty with a rather high level of biology," Micklos said. "There's a different residue left when a kid is involved in learning with all of his senses."

Despite the importance of STEM, it's often an area in which American students are deficient. Why?

Theoretically, life science should be interesting because it's about life, but [rote memorization] takes a lot of the life out of it, because the more you teach for tests, the less you have time to teach the kind of hands-on that makes science interesting.

So you're not trying to create scientists, but science literacy?

I am just trying to make science egalitarian so that people can understand the way of scientists. You would think we would be angling for Westinghouse [winners], and those we can surely accommodate. But really our goal is for everybody to be able to do the experiments.

How does this work in practice?

I had a group of disadvantaged kids from the central part of Long Island, and this big kid -- he was clearly a football player -- had done the experiment really well, and I told him so. He held up the photo, and he said, "Look Teach, I got it right!" and it was clear he was not used to that kind of success. He learned more in a couple of hours here than he had ever learned in science.

There is a tendency in the public to demonize genetic engineering. Why is that?

In a word: the Nazis. On the human side there's still a residue of eugenics. As far as genetically modified foods, that comes from people not understanding how dramatically we have changed plants and animals over the past several hundred years.

Do you have an elevator speech?

Science isn't a bunch of facts, it's a way to know the world. You have to be willing to do science and get messy. You have to know how to do experiments and think a bit like a scientist.


NAME: David Micklos, executive director and founder, DNA Learning Center, Cold Spring Harbor

WHAT IT DOES: Teach students, grades 5-12, and their teachers about science

EMPLOYEES: 20 full time, 30 part time and interns

REVENUE: $3.3 million

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