Sustainability and preschool: The kids are watching you

Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College Preschool serves working parents and some of the youngest Sun Devils

May 25, 2016

Children at ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College Preschool are playing with blocks and making art projects, in addition to learning new ways of thinking about the world around them. These young students have pretty big ideas about recycling, turning off water while washing their hands and packing lunches that don’t generate a lot of waste.

Sustainability education is infused into many activities at the preschool, including lessons on “making the Earth happy” by reducing water use, walking (as opposed to driving) more places and cutting down on the unnecessary generation of trash. For example, the playground has paper cups for children to use for drinking water. To see how many cups the school population generates, students saved paper cups for a week and strung them up as a garland. Even though paper cups can be recycled, bringing reusable water bottles to school is more sustainable. They have collected other forms of waste, such as plastic lids or the many types of packaging used for food, to create sculptures that remind people about making better choices for the environment. Children at the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College Preschool learn about sustainability and more . Children at the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College Preschool learn about sustainability and more Download Full Image

“We work to support the development of empathy and positive social interactions for young children," said Allison Mullady, preschool director. "Our staff and leadership team create research questions based on our day-to-day experiences. We seek out partners, create projects and collect data on the ideas impacting our children.

“We know the early years are critical in shaping the brain and developing cognitive and social skills needed later in life,” Mullady added. “This method includes young children’s mind-sets about the future and how to care for our environment. I approached ASU’s Sustainability Science Education team at the Biodesign Institute to see how we could really embed these ideas of sustainability right from the start. We explored how to develop a curriculum that takes abstract concepts and relates them to everyday life.”

The Sustainability Science Education team is creating unique sustainability education experiences for many teachers, including those at the preschool. This team is led by Lee Hartwell, ASU-affiliated faculty and Nobel Prize recipient (in physiology); Annie Warren, director of research and development at ASU’s Biodesign Institute; and Leanna Archambault, associate professor at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

“Children are incredibly observant. Providing unique opportunities to young kids, such as cleaning glitter-infused water with sponges, provides a creative way for them to draw connections to events like oil spills. Exploring these issues at a young age provides a necessary foundation for the critical consumption of knowledge in the future,” Warren said.

The preschool often partners with other entities to enhance the education and opportunities provided to students. A recent “Preschool Yogis” study with the College of Health Solutions allowed staff to review how yoga impacted the children’s self-regulation and problem-solving skills. During an eight-week project, teachers and parents reported an increase in the use of breathing strategies and other yoga techniques among children. The adults reported that the preschoolers reminded each other about the breathing exercises, calmed themselves through yoga and reduced their own stress.

“We have created a culture of use-inspired research," said Mullady. "All of the research we conduct is organic and based on challenges or ideas from our own staff and children. We want the projects to have a direct benefit to the children, a value to families at the preschool and the potential to impact others in the greater early childhood community.”

The Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College Preschool has three classrooms that include a total of 40 children ranging in age from 3 to 5 years. Preschool students are placed in a classroom based on the “best fit” approach in which the staff and director consider many factors, such as age, teachers’ expertise and children’s strengths and needs.

The preschool has a 20-year history on the ASU campus. “Our lead teachers and instructional assistants are full-time ASU employees with extensive experience working with young children," Mullady said. "We also host many students and interns from education programs at ASU and Northern Arizona University. Our goal is to support early care and education through those who are training to become teachers and through a wide range of pre-professionals who can promote early education in their fields.”

In the past year, the preschool hosted more than 100 college students from programs in early childhood, special education, occupational therapy, speech and hearing sciences, nursing, nutrition and health promotion, university service learning, dance, drama and music therapy.

Preschool openings are available to children regardless of whether parents or guardians have an affiliation with the university. Located on ASU’s Tempe campus, the school is open 12 months per year, Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. A few openings remain for fall 2016. Interested families should contact the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College Preschool at or 480-965-9396 to learn more and set up a tour. To learn more about the preschool and the sustainability education happening there, view the video below or visit Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College Preschool. To learn more about sustainability education at ASU, visit ASU’s Sustainability Science Education team at the Biodesign Institute.


Copy writer, Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College


Top-down design brings new DNA structures to life

ASU researcher part of team describing new method for designing geometric forms built from DNA

May 26, 2016

Among the valuable holdings in London’s Wellcome Library is a rough pencil sketch made in 1953 by Francis Crick. The drawing is one of the first to show the double-helix structure of DNA — nature’s blueprint for the design of sea snails, human beings and every other living form on Earth.

Few could have predicted however, that DNA’s simple properties of self-assembly and its versatile information-carrying capacity could be put to many uses never imagined by double-helix discoverers James Watson and Crick (or indeed, by nature itself). DNA spanning-tree diagram The boldfaced line, known as a spanning tree, follows the desired geometric shape, touching each vertex just once. A spanning-tree algorithm is used in the new DNA origami method to map out the proper routing path for the DNA strand. Download Full Image

In new research appearing in the advance online edition of the journal Science, Arizona State University researcher Hao Yan and colleagues from MIT and Baylor College of Medicine describe a new method for designing geometric forms built from DNA. They present a novel variant on a technique known as DNA origami, in which the base-pairing properties of DNA are exploited for the construction of tiny structures in two and three dimensions.

“An important challenge in the field of DNA nanotechnology is to design any desirable structures in a top-down manner, without much human input concerning details of DNA strand folding paths,” Yan said.

His collaborators at MIT, led by Mark Bathe, developed a computer algorithm to design DNA nanostructures by only inputting a target shape. They engineered a software platform that can compute and output necessary DNA strands to form designer architectures. Formation of these structures were then systematically characterized and confirmed experimentally at the three institutes.

ASU professor Hao Yan

“This really showcases interdisciplinary collaborative science across the country,” said Yan (pictured left), who directs the Biodesign Institute’s Center for Molecular Design and Biomimetics at ASU.

Other worlds

The team designs useful structures at an astonishingly minute scale. (One nanometer is a billionth of a meter, or about the size of a sugar molecule.) Specialized imaging techniques, including atomic force- and cryo-electron microscopy, are used to visualize the resulting forms.

The simplified technique described promises to significantly extend the use of DNA origami beyond the specialist community and expand the range of possible applications in biomolecular science and nanotechnology. These include the use of nanoparticles for drug delivery and cell targeting, construction of nanoscale robots capable of performing diverse activities in medicine and industry and the design of custom-tailored optical devices.

One of the more exciting innovations on the horizon involves the use of DNA as a storage medium — one boasting retention times in the millions of years. (A single gram of DNA can store about 700 terabytes of information — an amount equivalent to 14,000 50-gigabyte Blu-ray disks. Further, such nucleic acid memory could potentially be operated with a fraction of the energy required for other information storage options.)


The new design method, which can produce virtually any polyhedral shape, relies on a top-down strategy, which begins with an outline of the desired form and works backward in stages to define the required DNA sequence that will properly fold to form the finished product.

The autonomous process is carried out using a software program designed by the authors. Known as DAEDALUS (for DNA Origami Sequence Design Algorithm for User-Defined Structures), the program carries out inverse design of arbitrary DNA origami nanoforms, based on an ­­input wireframe mesh (a visual representation of the closed, 3-D geometric surface).

Illustration of the process to design DNA origami nanostructures.

Illustration shows the basic process used to design DNA origami nanostructures. First, a wireframe of the intended target design is made. The software then translates this into a plan for the routing of DNA scaffold and staple strands, which assemble to form the desired shape. Image by Biodesign Institute

The program is not only user-friendly, but highly versatile, producing forms not limited to spherical topology (i.e., closed, two-sided structures with no boundaries or holes). Once the target form has been described as a network of nodes and edges, DNA scaffold strands of custom length and sequence are generated using technology known as asymmetric polymerase chain reaction.

The new study describes the fabrication of a variety of geometric DNA objects, including 35 polyhedral forms (Platonic, Archimedean, Johnson and Catalan solids), six asymmetric structures and four polyhedra with nonspherical topology, using inverse design principles. The method can produce nanoforms with high fidelity and stability without the normal laborious process of manually designing base pairs to form the intended target structure.

Entering the fold

DNA origami brings the ancient Japanese method of paper folding down to the molecular scale. The basics are simple: Take a length of single-stranded DNA and guide it into a desired shape, fastening the structure together using shorter so-called staple strands, which bind in strategic places along the longer length of DNA. The method relies on the fact that DNA’s four nucleotide letters — A, T, C and G — stick together in a consistent manner; As always pairing with Ts and Cs with Gs.

The DNA molecule in its characteristic double-stranded form is fairly stiff, compared with single-stranded DNA, which is flexible. For this reason, single-stranded DNA makes for an ideal lace-like scaffold material. Further, its pairing properties are predictable and consistent (unlike RNA, which is considered promiscuous, due to base pairings that may be unexpected).

The technique has proven wildly successful in creating myriad forms in two and three dimensions, which conveniently self-assemble when the designed DNA sequences are mixed together. The tricky part is preparing the proper DNA sequence and routing design for scaffolding and staple strands in order to achieve the desired target structure. Typically, this is painstaking work that must be carried out manually.

With the new technique, the target structure is first described in terms of a wire mesh made up of polyhedra. From this, a spanning tree algorithm is generated. This is basically a map that will automatically guide the routing of the DNA scaffold strand through the entire origami structure, touching each vertex in the geometric form once. Complementary staple strands are then assigned, and the final form self-assembles.

To test the method, simpler forms known as Platonic solids were first fabricated, followed by increasingly complex structures. These included objects with nonspherical topologies and unusual internal details, which had never been experimentally realized before.

The completed designs demonstrated the ability of the top-down technique to automatically generate scaffold and staple routings for an expansive range of nanoforms, based solely on surface geometry. Cryo-EM was used to confirm structural fidelity and stability of the assembled origami structures.

Further experiments confirmed that the DNA structures produced were potentially suitable for biological applications as they displayed long-term stability in serum and low-salt conditions.

The research paves the way for the development of designed nanoscale systems mimicking the properties of viruses, photosynthetic organisms and other sophisticated products of natural evolution.

In addition to his appointment at the Biodesign Institute, Hao Yan is the Milton D. Glick Distinguished Professor in the School of Molecular Sciences, in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Richard Harth

Science writer, Biodesign Institute at ASU