Press Release

New York City Middle Schoolers are World’s First to Sequence DNA in Class
PlayDNA launches hands-on STEM curriculum in data science and genomics at Village Community School...

New York City, NY – May 9, 2017  – A new STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) pilot curriculum is underway at Village Community School [VCS] in Manhattan where 34 seventh graders are the world’s first to sequence DNA in class. The curriculum is the creation of PlayDNA: a start-up company dedicated to educating students about data science and genomics. 

The PlayDNA curriculum, a hands-on STEM course developed by Columbia University scientists, is designed to engage young people in the rapidly evolving fields of genomic science and big data management. “In the 21st century, genomics and data science have quickly risen to prominence, creating a fast-growing need for people with these highly technical skills,” said Dr. Yaniv Erlich, a genomic researcher and co-founder of PlayDNA. “The best time to engage and educate students is at an early stage in their educational careers.” Eve Kleger, VCS Head of School, added, “We believe the best path to knowledge is through in-depth, hands-on educational experiences. That’s what this pioneering PlayDNA program is all about:  learning by doing.”

PlayDNA provides training and an infrastructure to use portable DNA sequencers in the classroom. “We see DNA sequencing becoming of ubiquitous interest and we want to give students a first-hand glimpse of their future world. At the same time we encourage integrative thinking by combining data science techniques to interpret the student-collected genomic data. We want to spark the interest of young students to become the next generation of data scientists and software engineers,” said Dr. Sophie Zaaijer, co-founder of PlayDNA.

Pilot at Village Community School

The four-month STEM pilot curriculum for middle-school students began at Village Community School in late February. These 12 and 13 year-olds are the first in the world to interact with a cutting-edge, portable DNA sequencing device called the MinION, a product of Oxford Nanopore technologies. “VCS has a long history of advancing K-8 education into new areas of inquiry and study,” said Dr. Zaaijer, “so we were thrilled to have them as our first curriculum partner. “

The PlayDNA coursework expands upon the school’s Life Science requirements to study the basics of DNA and molecular biology concepts. PlayDNA enables students to do hands-on DNA sequencing – of vegetable microbiomes in this pilot – through a carefully designed curriculum. Students learn about DNA and how to identify living species by conducting a variety of experiments and executing conclusive data analysis. The first group of students has responded with enthusiasm. Formative and summative assessments have shown that students have gained a strong understanding of the DNA concepts taught.

“The engagement of students has been truly impressive,” said Hristo Pepelanov, the VCS science teacher whose class is piloting the curriculum. “Our young scientists have loved PlayDNA’s holistic, hands-on approach to multiple aspects of DNA study. They’ve learned theory and lab processes as well as basic coding and how to interpret the data of their findings. As an educator, it’s been thrilling to see students take ownership of their discoveries.”  

About PlayDNA

PlayDNA is a start-up providing a complete curriculum that promotes integrative thinking for STEM education. PlayDNA provides the curriculum and infrastructure for students to use the latest cutting edge DNA sequencing technology: the MinION which is the size of a Mars-bar. This miniature DNA sequencing kit can easily be set up in the classroom. The PlayDNA curriculum starts by introducing concepts of DNA in conjunction with the first steps in coding. Then, students start to explore the Internet of living things. Lessons are hands-on, as studies show that the post-millennial generation learns most effectively by doing. More information on:

PlayDNA was founded by Dr. Sophie Zaaijer and Dr. Yaniv Erlich. Dr. Zaaijer is a Postdoctoral Fellow in genomics and molecular biology, and Dr. Erlich is assistant professor in genomics and computer science. The idea for PlayDNA came from the success of a similar class they provided for Columbia University undergraduate students ( Dr. Audrey Boklage, a curriculum expert and co-writer, is an experienced teacher and scholar of teaching methods.

To learn more about PlayDNA write to

Contact info media: 
For PlayDNA:
Len Stein:
Founders: Dr. Sophie Zaaijer and Dr. Yaniv Erlich
Curriculum Expert: Dr. Audrey Boklage

For Village Community School:
Joy Bergmann:

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