(Crystallographers Researching with Young Scientists: Teaching and Learning)
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 18% of 12-19 year olds are obese. This is especially significant given the myriad of social and medical problems associated with obesity, including heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. Furthermore, over 75% of adolescents in the United States do not eat enough fruits and vegetables. Clearly the messages about healthy diets are largely being ignored to the detriment of our society. In addition to this lack of interest in maintaining a healthy life style, there is also a decided apathy towards science. Indeed, in a recent speech by Ralph Cicerone, President of the National Academies of Sciences, entitled “How Healthy is Science in the United States?” Mr. Cicerone commented that science in general in this country is trailing behind that of others. “Sadly, our nation has fallen behind in work on scientific discovery in some fields, and the education of scientists at every level – from the youngest school children to our most advanced postdoctoral students – must be strengthened.” One cannot help but notice that the health of our children and the state of science is, in general, impaired.
Project CRYSTAL, developed by Hazel Holden, Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin, Dan Toomey, Middle School Science Teacher at Edgewood School, and three of Holden’s graduate students, Nate Bruender, Amanda Carney, and Rachel Kubiak, was designed to address these two issues facing our nation at a “grass roots” level. Its mission is threefold in nature: (i) to instill a love for chemistry in middle school students by studying the main food elements: proteins, lipids, and carbohydrates, (ii) to provide hands-on laboratory experience in an active, state-of-the-art research laboratory thus fostering interest in a future science career, and (iii) to make chemistry more accessible to “at-risk” students by outreach activities.
The curriculum aspect of Project Crystal is based around three modules presently being developed. The sixth grade module begins with basic concepts of matter, including a discussion of electrons, neutrons, protons, atoms, molecules, and chemical bonding. It culminates with a discussion of common sugars. The seventh grade module focuses on the main chemical concepts associated with fats including trans fats, saturated fats, unsaturated fats, and cholesterol. Finally, the eighth grade module concentrates on the chemistry and three-dimensional structures of proteins. By studying the biochemistry of sugars, fats, and proteins, the students will ultimately be able to make informed choices on what foods they eat.
The scientific mentoring aspect of Project CRYSTAL currently involves six young scientists from Edgewood School that spend three hours each week in the laboratory working with the graduate students. Research in the Holden laboratory centers around the enzymes required for the biosynthesis of unusual sugars that are found attached, for example, to some antibiotics, antitumor agents, or to the outer surfaces of bacteria. The main technique employed in the laboratory is x-ray crystallography, which is a powerful method that allows one to “see” a protein in three dimensions. For this technique, crystals need to be grown of the protein of interest. During the fall of 2008, the Edgewood students (two each from sixth, seventh, and eighth grades) learned the basic elements of molecular biology including cloning, protein expression, and purifications. Indeed, one of their proteins has already crystallized!
Ensuring that the goal of Project CRYSTAL is more widespread than to just Edgewood Middle School, our third mission is developing outreach activities specifically aimed at underprivileged youth. To this end we participated in the Devin Harris basketball camp held in August 2009 in Milwaukee. Harris is an NBA All-Star who plays for the New Jersey Nets. Part of his mission is to provide athletic and academic opportunities to at-risk students. He has hosted the Devin Harris Recreation Camp in Milwaukee for four years, and the camp includes an educational component. In addition to playing basketball and other sports, students attend class for one and a half hours each day for four days. We taught over 360 students, ranging in ages from 7 to 15, about the nutrition of sugars through readings and experiments (pictures can be found at www.projectcrystal.org/outreach). Each student left with a poster we designed about carbohydrates, and the science behind why too much added sugars to foods can be unhealthy. For the camp this August Project CRYSTAL has been asked to increase our participation to four days, where we will be providing interactive, standards-based, health-conscious activities for students. In addition to the Milwaukee camp, Project CRYSTAL has partnered with Edgewood College, UW-Madison, and Madison School Community Recreation (MSCR) to create a similar basketball camp in Madison. The goal of our outreach activities is to move the topic of chemistry from the “dull and boring” realm to a “cool and relevant” subject.
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