A Pilot STEM Curriculum Designed to Teach High School Students Concepts in Biochemical Engineering and Pharmacology

EC Pharmacol Toxicol. 2019 Aug;7(8):846-877. Epub 2019 Jul 26.


The creation of technology that affords for the design of artificial enzymes is a new branch of biochemical engineering with the objective to solve the looming global catastrophe including food shortages, energy crisis, novel diseases, climate change and environmental degradation. However, the development of science and technology that will lead to the design of artificial enzymes depends on availability of scientists with a broad range of expertise including chemistry and physics of chemical bonding, structural biochemistry of macromolecular interactions, theoretical physics and mathematics with the focus on computer modeling of dynamic docking of macromolecules. Our previous experience in university STEM education led us to conclude that in order to train future scientists with a broad expertise in STEM, it is critical for high school students to learn interdisciplinary concepts of STEM courses at an earlier age. In this article, we describe the first phase of a STEM project that involved introducing students to STEM curriculum designed to steer high school students' interest towards biochemical engineering and pharmacology. In addition, we present the outline of the STEM curriculum, along with user-friendly tutorials of AutoDock Vina, AutoDock Tools and PyMol programs that we designed to teach secondary STEM students computer modeling and docking of macromolecules. STEM high school students performed multiple exercises to understand how the potential pharmacological agents, cardiotoxins from cobra venom, interact with mitochondrial phospholipids in order to gain a deep understanding of elevated biophysical and biochemical concepts in protein drug interactions with biomembranes. We also present the results of evaluative assessments that tested students' knowledge and skills that students gained following the completion of our pilot STEM course. In brief, the assessment results showed that the students successfully acquired a high level of understanding in structural biophysics and biochemistry. Importantly, this paper provides strong proof-of-concept that our pilot STEM curriculum can be successfully integrated in the traditional American and Chinese high school classroom. The curriculum and tutorials presented in this article could be used by college and high school teachers and students in STEM classes and to support undergraduate university courses in Pharmacology, Inorganic and Organic Chemistry, Biochemistry and Structural Biology for classroom instructions and homework assignments.

Keywords: Assessment of conceptual understanding of intermolecular interactions and mechanisms of pharmacologically potent natural toxins; STEM curriculum focused on Biochemistry and Pharmacology; Tutorials on docking of pharmacologically relevant cardiotoxins with mitochondrial phospholipids.