RNA Lab Guide for Educators

For discussion questions and lesson plans, go to the RNA Lab collection on PBS LearningMedia.

The standards-based NOVA RNA Lab allows users to explore the science of RNA and learn how to design biomolecules online.  Based on the existing game Eterna, the NOVA RNA Lab is built around a series of puzzles. By exploring and finding potential solutions to these puzzles, users learn about the complex process of RNA folding, while honing their problem-solving and iteration skills in an engaging, game-based environment.  Users learn that molecular shape determines RNA function and allows RNA strands to carry out a wide variety of jobs essential for life. 

The Lab also features a series of animated videos that explain RNA, protein synthesis, and RNA’s role in fighting viruses.  Once players finish the NOVA RNA Lab, they will be directed to the Eterna website where, if they become good enough, they can help researchers discover new ways to fold RNA. Their discoveries have real-world implications, as Eterna crowdsources RNA designs, helping scientists better understand gene expression, disease prevention, and more. The NOVA RNA Lab supports creative visual problem solving and uses NOVA’s one-of-a-kind storytelling techniques to maximize the potential for learning through firsthand involvement in science.

In the Classroom

There are many ways to bring the RNA Lab into your classroom.  Each part of the Lab (videos and puzzles) can be used as a teaching tool on its own, or you can use the entire Lab as a comprehensive curricular resource.  The Lab lends itself well to any classroom model and also allows students to engage in the learning process independently, extending their learning beyond the classroom walls.

Strategies for using the NOVA RNA Lab    

  • Work through one or more of the video lessons with your students in class or have them watch the videos individually or in small groups. Use corresponding video quizzes as a formative or summative assessment to gauge student understanding.
  • Assign the puzzles for at-home or in-class completion. They adapt easily to either traditional or flipped classroom models.
  • After watching the videos, facilitate an in-class discussion with students about what they found interesting or exciting.
  • Have students make concept maps based upon the topics or ideas addressed in the videos.
  • Allow students time to investigate current RNA research and the work being done in labs around the world. What are scientists finding? What is the future of RNA?
  • Have students make predictions as to how they believe RNA will change the future. Encourage them to support their hypotheses with knowledge drawn from the videos and the Lab experience itself.
  • After students complete the NOVA RNA Lab puzzles, encourage them to continue to learn and engage by using Eterna. Users can start playing Eterna with points they earn with the NOVA RNA Lab.
  • Have students choose and research a specific RNA from the Lab, using the wiki as a place to start an in-depth exploration.

Scaffolding for different types of students

The RNA Lab increases in difficulty as players advance through each trial. Here are some suggestions for using the RNA Lab with different groups of students:

  • Modify the number of trials that young or low performing students must complete by instructing them to complete The Basics and the Protein Synthesis trials. Encourage them to work collaboratively in pairs to complete the RNA World and Virus Attack trials if they complete the first two trials.
  • Encourage young or low performing students to play with hints turned on in each puzzle. The hints option can be toggled on and off at the top of the game screen when playing a puzzle. Students can access information about all the icons by clicking on the “?” icon in the bottom right of the game screen.
  • For high performing students, instruct them to complete short response questions that summarize the content of the videos they unlock in the game. Here are some discussion questions for each video on PBS LearningMedia.

RNA Game

The many levels (trials) of the RNA Lab game get progressively more complex as users work through them.  First, players learn the basics in a step-by-step tutorial.  As users progress through the trials, they will learn via puzzles and videos about protein synthesis, RNA function, and the role that RNA plays in fighting viruses. [1] (Technical requirements: The RNA Game requires the Flash player plugin. Recommended browsers include the latest version of Chrome, Firefox, and Safari.  For Internet Explorer, use version 9 or above.)

Tutorial: The Basics

Trial 1: Protein Synthesis

Trial 2: RNA World

Trial 3: Virus Attack


The RNA Lab includes four short videos that are progressively unlocked as a player moves through the game.  In addition to revealing important concepts relating to content standards, the videos explore why studying RNA is so important and also look at the future possibilities in this exciting field. Educators can directly access the videos for integration into any lesson.

The RNA Enigma - This video introduces the RNA Lab, RNA’s folding and functions, and why studying RNA is so important.  Possible medical breakthroughs using RNA are emphasized as the user prepares for the RNA puzzles.

Protein Synthesis in the Cellular Factory – This video depicts the processes involved as DNA builds RNA (transcription) and as RNA builds proteins (translation).

The RNA Origin of Life –The RNA world hypothesis suggests that self-replicating RNA formed billions of years ago, evolving to have the ability to build stable proteins, while other RNAs mutated to form DNA, leading to life as we know it today. This video investigates the idea that RNA was the precursor to life. 

Virus Wars – This video investigates how viruses attack cells and explores RNAi’s role in helping cells fight back. Learn how RNAi fights viruses in plants and some animals and how scientists are researching these virus-fighting capabilities in humans, looking for new potential applications for cutting-edge disease prevention.

The Scientists

The RNA Lab team will periodically make scientists available to engage with you in the classroom and to answer students’ questions about topics related to RNA.  By interacting with professionals who are active in this field, students will have the chance to explore careers in science.  A schedule of events will become available shortly.

  • Work with your class to compile a list of questions to ask the featured scientist. Submit your questions online as a class.
  • Ask students to discuss the types of skills they might need to develop to become scientists in the RNA field.
  • Use NOVA Lab's career exploration and college preparation resources to prepare and plan for a science career.

The RNA Lab Standards Alignment

The Lab introduces students to essential scientific practices found in the Next Generation Science Standards. To see how various parts of the RNA Lab can be used to meet your course objectives, download our standards alignment document below:

RNA Lab Standards Alignment (63.5 KB)

Related Resources

Below are more resources from NOVA and other organizations to enhance your lessons about RNA.

From NOVA:

Revealing the Origins of Life – In this video segment from NOVA scienceNOW, a team of chemists discovers how the first RNA molecules could have formed on prehistoric Earth and created the precursors to life.

RNAi Discovered – This video segment from NOVA scienceNOW investigates how RNA interference (RNAi), which evolved in cells to regulate the synthesis of proteins from genes, leads to normal development and the prevention of diseases.

RNAi Explained – An interactive activity from NOVA scienceNOW explains how RNAi fights infections.    

RNAi Therapy – Learn how RNAi could be used to treat a variety of diseases in this video segment from NOVA scienceNOW.

From DNA to Protein – A narrated animation from NOVA illustrates the process of protein synthesis.

External Resources:

Eterna – Created by scientists at Carnegie Mellon and Stanford, Eterna is a game that not only challenges players to design RNA molecules, but also enables them to compete to have their designs created in an actual laboratory.  As users progress through the series of puzzles, they learn more about the complex world of RNA and contribute to real ongoing research as “citizen scientists.”

Exploring Life's Origins – Part of a multimedia exhibit at the Museum of Science in Boston, MA, this project uses molecular illustrations and animations to investigate theories about the origins of life.  The website includes a timeline of life’s evolution, information on understanding the RNA world and building a protocell, and educator resources and useful links.

[1] The default setting of the RNA Lab game relies on the perception of color. Students with color-blindness can adjust the settings by using the gear button on the bottom right-hand corner of the game platform.