STAR Team Recognized for Impact on STEM Education in Massachusetts High Schools

Anna Babbi Klein, Communications Manager, DUE in collaboration with Dr. Lourdes Alemán and Dr. Alison Brauneis, Research Scientists, Biology HHMI Education Group

On May 30, the Office of Educational Innovation and Technology’s (OEIT) STAR program (Software Tools for Academics and Researchers) was awarded a JFYNet Innovation Award for Technology in Education at a ceremony at the Boston State House. The award recognizes significant contributions to the cause of improving high school student achievement through the use of technology. This year’s awards were focused on innovative uses of technology in STEM education and college readiness. The awards are presented by JFYNetWorks, a Boston-based non-profit enterprise that, for the past 12 years, has helped schools effectively use technology to improve student success.

JFYNET Innovation Award Recipients

OEIT began a collaborative project with JFYNetWorks and a high school biology teacher at North Shore Technical High School, Shannon Donnelly, in the spring of 2010. The goal was to adapt StarBiochem, a molecular 3-D visualizer developed and used at MIT, to help high school students better understand the four basic biological macromolecules:proteins, sugars, fats, and nucleic acids – a topic that is included in Massachusetts standardized tests. This effort has resulted in the development and implementation of inquiry-based activities that enable high school students to use StarBiochem to explore the molecular structures typically encountered within Introductory Biology and high school biology curricula. Gary Kaplan, Director of JFYNetWorks explained the choice of STAR, “STAR creates vivid, colorful, dynamic online visualizations of molecules so that students can see what they look like in three dimensions [and] manipulate them.”

Dr. Lourdes Alemán (in front) and Dr. Alison Brauneis at Malden High School

Over several months, research scientists Dr. Lourdes Alemán and Dr. Alison Brauneis, of Biology Professor Graham Walker's HHMI funded-Education Group, worked with developer Sara Bonner of the OEIT STAR team to extend StarBiochem functionality. The challenge was that most 3-D protein visualizers, including StarBiochem, only allow the visualization and manipulation of protein structures found in a large online repository called the Protein Data Bank. It was impossible to visualize the more simple building blocks of the four macromolecules, including those of proteins, without first opening a structure containing a protein. To fill this gap, Lourdes and Alison identified protein structures from the Protein Data Bank containing examples of building blocks from the other three classes of macromolecules and Sara Bonner isolated and bundled the molecules of interest within StarBiochem.

North Shore Technical High School students working with StarBiochem

The team created over 50 new structures in StarBiochem for students to view interactively, including examples that students would have learned in their high school biology class, such as glucose, phospholipids, DNA, amongst others. In collaboration with Shannon Donnelly, Lourdes and Alison created a StarBiochem activity to explore the four basic classes of macromolecules and their building blocks. Lourdes and Alison also added an assessment module to test students’ knowledge. Dave Stanley, Education Specialist at JFYNetWorks that facilitated the implementation of StarBiochem in North Shore Technical High School, noted that “Lourdes Alemán's and Alison Brauneis' dedication and responsiveness have made this effort successful.”

This collaborative effort has been mutually beneficial. The STAR program gained invaluable insight on the pedagogical approaches that are better suited for high schools. At the same time, supporting curricula in a high school environment has proved informative for their use at MIT and worldwide. It has also yielded more joint projects with JFYNetWorks. They identified StarGenetics, a virtual genetics experiment simulator, as a useful tool for teaching genetics. The hurdle to using the tool was that high school curriculum introduces genetics to students by illustrating the classic experiments that Gregor Mendel performed with garden peas, which is an organism that was not yet implemented in StarGenetics. Dr. Stacie Bumgarner, who was also part of the HHMI funded Biology Education Group, worked with OEIT STAR developer, Ivica Ceraj, to build a new StarGenetics user interface for garden peas. The tool will be used at North Shore Technical High School and JFYNetWorks is also bringing on more schools. This spring, Malden High School began to integrate the STAR tools into their biology curriculum.

Gary Kaplan expressed his gratitude to OEIT and the Biology HHMI Education Group, “these cutting-edge teaching devices are available to students at the high school and even the middle school level. These researchers, these innovators-- these educators-- are changing the way science is taught in our high school and middle school classrooms. We are proud to be working with OEIT and STAR to transform STEM education.”