Shannon Colton (far right) with one of the SMART Teams at the American Society for Biochemistry
What do you get when you combine cutting-edge research, story-telling, education and 3D printing technology? An amazing world of science education outreach, using 3D models to bridge the gap between students and researchers. I have been fortunate to explore this fascinating world for the past nine years. In my job as program director at the Milwaukee School of Engineering Center for BioMolecular Modeling (CBM) (http://cbm.msoe.edu), I combine my love for science research and my passion for teaching with my need to fidget and play with things.
The CBM is an “instructional materials development laboratory” in which we develop materials (models, activities, animations, online resources) to bridge the gap between the education community (high school students and teachers and undergraduates) with the research community (graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and principal investigators). The abstract world of molecular biology is often challenging for students to comprehend, especially when they cannot pick up a ribosome or easily see what a protein looks like and how it interacts with other biomolecules. Using structural information from the Protein Data Bank (http://www.pdb.org), a computer visualization program (Jmol; http://jmol.sourceforge.net/) and 3D printing technology, we are able to create physical models of biomolecules (Fig 1). These physical models are tactile teaching tools, in which students can now visualize and physically hold proteins and other biomolecules. The models we create capture the process of science in a way that scientists can communicate their research to students. Using these models, we develop “molecular stories” that bring high level research into the hands of high school students and their teachers. Every protein has a story to tell, and we like to think of ourselves as the story-tellers. To tell these stories effectively, we combine educational materials (such as activities, graphics, animations and online tutorials) with the physical models. I have the chance to explore stories spanning the broad scientific spectrum. Although my doctoral research focused on reproductive physiology, I now have the opportunity to explore research topics from bacterial toxins to neuronal transmission to whole genome sequencing. This breadth of discovery has been fascinating to explore and even more fun to share with the next generation of future scientists.
At the CBM, I direct a program called SMART Teams (Students Modeling A Research Topic) in which high school students learn basic information about protein biochemistry and how to design a protein model using the computer visualization program, Jmol. The teams are matched with a researcher who is investigating a particular protein in the lab. After designing and building a 3D model of the protein using 3D printing technology, SMART Teams create oral presentations to explain their work to lay audiences and a poster that is presented to a scientific audience (Fig 2). Through this program, students have the opportunity to learn about scientific research, collaboration and publication/presentation. In the nine years that I have directed this program, we have seen a growth in (i) the number of teams participating (from 5 teams in Milwaukee to over 60 nationwide), (ii) the number of students per team (from 2-3 to over 20 on a team) and (iii) the impact on the lives of these students. One research mentor elegantly stated “SMART Teams change lives”.
When I completed my bachelor’s degree and entered graduate school, I had intended to pursue the traditional tenure track faculty position. I am very happy that I chose the path less traveled, as I have entered into this amazing world of education, models and molecular story-telling. This unique combination provides a novel and dynamic approach to engage students in molecular biology, and perhaps empower them to pursue a career in science.
Fig 1:This protein, IRE1, is involved in recognition of misfolded proteins within the cell. The Wisconsin Virtual Learning SMART Team worked with Dr. Madhu Dey from the University of Wisconsin -Milwaukee to build this model.
Fig 2: A student presents his poster at the SMART Team poster session that took place on Friday, March 9th at the Medical College of Wisconsin. As a part of the SMART Team program, the students develop and present a poster which tells the molecular story of the protein that they modeled. In this case, the student is holding a model of the hnRNP F protein, a protein involved in splice site recognition.
Shannon Colton, PhD
Center for BioMolecular Modeling
Milwaukee School of Engineering
1025 N. Broadway St
Milwaukee, WI 53202http://cbm.msoe.edu