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First, the 16 middle and high school students mashed their strawberries into a pulp.

Then, they mixed in some shampoo, counting on the soap to break down the plant’s cellular walls. Then, they filtered the plant pulp and soap through a coffee filter and carefully measured and mixed ethanol into the mix, causing the plant’s DNA to separate from the water around it, so they could extract it by stirring the mixture with a simple wooden stick.

These weren’t aspiring mad scientists; they were students at the Oregon Connections Academy, a statewide public online charter school, who were attending a field trip to Oregon State University on Thursday.

Jessica Heisley, a biology and environmental science teacher at the school, said that Thursday was one of the school’s student contact days — opportunities for students to attend field trips scheduled throughout the state. She said in science classes, the school tries to have labs students can do at home with easy-to-find materials, but the field trip to OSU was a unique opportunity to get some hands-on experience doing science and experiencing a college campus.

However, she said, these days are also important for a school where all the lessons are done remotely and students are spread across the state.

“The biggest thing is the socialization,” she said.

Heisley, an Albany resident, said some of the students came from as far away as Klamath Falls for the OSU field trip.

Gregory Leathrum, a 13-year-old Corvallis resident who has attended the Connections Academy since third grade, attended the trip.

“The field trips are a really good way to meet my classmates,” he said.

He said that while he attends school online, he gets to know his classmates through projects and “live lessons," which are lessons where the teacher can use either voice or text chat in the lesson. He also has visited classmates when he visits the towns where they live and sees classmates during Science Olympiad preparation sessions.

He said the field trip appealed to him because he is interested in genetics.

“I get to extract DNA from a strawberry. I don’t get to do that every day,” he said.

He added that he was surprised the process of DNA extraction could be done so simply.

Gregory’s father, Pat Leathrum, said they try to attend field trips about once a month. One of the things he likes about the online school is that they're given choices of field trips they can attend. He said a bonus for this particular field trip was that it gave them a chance to visit the OSU admissions office to talk about the potential of Gregory taking math classes at OSU next year. Although he’s in eighth grade, he's taking 11th grade math.

Pat Leathrum said that while they thought Gregory had good teachers in Corvallis schools, they wanted more flexibility in his education so that he could take advanced classes in areas in which he excels. The Connections Academy offered that flexibility, he said. He said he and his wife both work full-time, and so they didn't want to home-school their son.

“We wanted teachers. We wanted curriculum. We’re not educators and we’re not going to come up with curriculum,” he said.

He said his wife works from home, so she is around with their sons during the school day, although he noted that children typically need less supervision once they move past the elementary level. He added that the Connections Academy works best with self-driven kids.

“Connections Academy isn’t for everybody, but it’s a great fit for us.”

Anthony Rimel can be reached at anthony.rimel@lee.net, 541-758-9526, or via Twitter @anthonyrimel.

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