A National Institutes of Health/National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIH/NIGMS) grant worth more than $1.3 million will support high school biology and chemistry teachers to incorporate current advancements of molecular modeling into their teaching.
The NIH/NIGMS grant recently was awarded to the Center for Science and the Schools (CSATS) in Penn State’s College of Education in support of the project, titled SHAPE MATTERS, “SHaping of Authentic Practices by Engaging in Modeling of A Topic with Teachers to Explore Research in Science.”
“Education faculty in the Center for Science and the Schools have a long history of partnering with science and engineering researchers to design cutting-edge professional development programs for K-12 in-service teachers,” said Kathy Hill, CSATS assistant professor of education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction.
Hill said secondary science curriculum will be developed that will ultimately provide learning experiences centered on engaging high school students in authentic science practices. The project includes using advances in computational power to make molecular biology accessible to all students by bringing it to life in the classroom.
“With a desire to partner with biology and chemistry faculty at Penn State, Amber Cesare (instructor and doctoral candidate, curriculum and instruction) and I met with researchers who study small molecules and macromolecules at the molecular level with a focus on understanding the structure, function and relationships between nucleic acids and proteins. From these meetings, the leadership team was formed and the SHAPE MATTERS project was conceived.”
Hill and Cesare collaborated with co-principal investigators Ira Ropson, Amie Boal, Hemant Yennawar and Neela Yennawar. Ropson is associate professor of biochemistry in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center; Boal is associate professor of chemistry, biochemistry and molecular biology in the Eberly College of Science; Hemant Yennawar is associate research professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in the Eberly College of Science; and Neela Yennawar is associate research professor in the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences.
“The way molecules work is directly related to what they are made of. In life science, we call that the relationship of ‘structure and function,’ and it is a very important concept in understanding molecular biology,” Cesare said. “In our grant we focus on proteins, which carry out many tasks in our bodies at the molecular level, to explore how a protein’s structure affects its function in the body and a person’s observable physical traits.”
Cesare said part of CSATS’ mission is to transform pre-college STEM education by working with K-12 teachers to use cutting-edge research contexts and best practices in professional development.
“By working with teachers, CSATS is able reach more students in the precollege classroom. In a single school year, high school teachers are typically providing instruction to about 80-150 students. In addition, many teachers will refine and use curriculum each year, which further increases the number of students who benefit from our programs,” she said.
Cesare said in order to bring molecular biology to life for these teachers and their students, CSATS is working with multiple Penn State molecular biologists to translate their research into the classroom.
“CSATS works with researchers to learn about what they do and how they do it. Then, CSATS faculty develop learning activities that approximate this work, but at an age-appropriate level,” Cesare explained. “Molecular biologists frequently use modeling to explore the relationship between structure and function, so teachers participating in the program will learn how scientists at Penn State use molecular modeling in their research.
“Our goal is to create a coherent storyline that connects the function of DNA to the action of proteins in the body. Our team plans to use molecular stories (e.g. diabetes), physical models, and computational models to accomplish this goal.”
In order to create these molecular stories in the classroom that are linked to Penn State research, Cesare said CSATS has partnered with the Milwaukee School of Engineering Center for Biomolecular Modeling (CBM).
“The CBM will provide physical models of biomolecules for teachers to use,” Cesare said. “For example, each teacher participating in the program will receive a classroom set of kits from the CBM to explore how insulin folds in the body. In addition to these physical models, teachers and students will also be using a free molecular visualization software to create 3D models that will be printed at the Center for Science and the Schools and distributed to the participating schools.”
According to Hill, high school students will have the opportunity to participate in a community-based symposium to showcase their own research projects while interacting with faculty and students at Penn State.
“This event will provide a venue for high school students to practice science communication through the presentation of their technical posters and 3-D models. In addition, the high school students will be able to connect with science experts and learn about the multitude of post-secondary programs offered at Penn State,” Hill said.
“These types of critical experiences can certainly inform students’ decisions about pursuing a career in science and their choices about where to continue their education beyond high school.”