May 2011

Service-learning in biochemistry

Even small connections to the community increase student motivation.

Many of the concepts that we teach in our undergraduate biochemistry classes, from protein structure and function to metabolism, are easily linked to defects and diseases. The theoretical aspects of diseases are intellectually fascinating, especially to us professors. However, including people who are living or working with a disease in the learning experience significantly increases students’ motivation by providing a human face to the disease and an opportunity to discuss things like drug side effects and cost and the stigma of living with a chronic disease.

In my nucleic acids biochemistry course, I use the human immunodeficiency virus to teach standard biochemical concepts: replication, transcription, reverse transcription, translation, DNA repair pathways and the immune system. Students read current literature and give several literature-based presentations as part of the class.

Community outreach

In general, the students are fairly interested in learning the concepts covered in this course. However, their dedication to the learning changes dramatically after a single visit to a local clinic that provides counseling and financial assistance to HIV/AIDS patients. Early in the course, students are given an introduction to the work done by the clinic and a tour of the facilities. Students spend a few additional hours over the duration of the course performing small tasks at the clinic, such as mailing out flyers about HIV/AIDS events or organizing a free HIV testing day on campus. Students are primed to ask questions about the disease and its effects on families and communities. Surprisingly, the work students do at the clinic is not as important as seeing the human face of the disease: A single visit to the clinic gives students some perspective on the challenges faced by people living with HIV or AIDS.

Toward the end of the course, students present an HIV 101 workshop to the local community on the basic science of viral replication, drugs and resistance. The students advertise their talks in local newspapers and on local radio stations. The students present the information in jargon-free English, and create material for public dissemination.

During the HIV 101 workshop, one or two people who are living with the disease also are invited to speak. These presentations have a powerful impact on the students – they recognize that learning about the science behind a disease is not the same as living with it. Also, the need for more research becomes immediately apparent. Students report that presenting the talk to the community is the most difficult part of the course.

Having taught this class with a service-learning component for the past twelve years, I have observed the impact that the community has on the students. In all these years, not one student has opted out of the service-learning portion of the course. And, every student has rated the service-learning portion as an important and essential aspect of this course. Students often note that the community activities both motivated and empowered them to use their scientific knowledge to make a difference.

Colorado College students in a 2011 nucleic acid course with a few members of the community.


As a professor who feels the pressure to cover myriad topics from the current research in riboswitches to DNA repair pathways, I find that these few hours of community exposure assist me in the classroom. The students are motivated by a need to make a difference, and they realize that a better understanding of biochemical processes is necessary to combat diseases.

I am convinced that incorporating service-learning is a powerful way to bring students’ energy and motivation into the classroom. Exposing students to the murkiness of the challenges of living with diseases has a powerful impact, and it motivates them to participate in research to find better solutions.

A YouTube video created by students in the nucleic acid course.

Neena GroverNeena Grover ( is an associate professor of biochemistry and chairwoman of chemistry and biochemistry at Colorado College.

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