September 2010

Teaching Science Through Protein Modeling


The Milwaukee School of Engineering Center for BioMolecular Modeling has been developing programs that introduce high school students and their teachers to the “real world of science” through protein-modeling activities. (Titled "SMART Teams: Transforming Students into Future ASBMB Members" in print version.)



A physical model of the p53 tumor suppressor protein, based on 1tup.pdb.

The vitality of any professional organization critically depends on its ability to introduce new members into its ranks. Both the past and current presidents of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology have articulated the goal of making ASBMB more responsive to the needs and interests of its youngest members. For most of us, the effort to attract young scientists to ASBMB involves improving the ways we teach our discipline to undergraduates or the development of better mentoring programs for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

At the Milwaukee School of Engineering Center for BioMolecular Modeling, we have been developing programs that introduce high school students and their teachers to the “real world of science” through protein-modeling activities:

• Last year, more than 2,400 high school students from around the U.S. constructed physical models of the influenza virus hemagglutinin protein using an 8-foot-long Mini-Toober (foam-covered wire) as part of the Science Olympiad Protein Modeling competition. To prepare for this event, the students learned about basic principles of protein structure and function, the Protein Data Bank and the use of the Jmol molecular visualization tool.

• In a second program called SMART Teams (Students Modeling a Research Topic), students learn to use our 3-D printing technology and are matched with a local research lab. The SMART Team visits the lab, learns about the work that is being done there and then designs and builds a physical model of a protein that is central to the work of the lab.

A SMART Team presents its modeling project at the 2010 ASBMB annual meeting in Anaheim.

The SMART Team program is an effective way to introduce teams of high school students to “real science”— i.e., science as it is practiced in the laboratory (1, 2). Why does this work? Social scientists who study the various ways in which novices are introduced to a professional community have concluded that one effective strategy is to engage novices in the work of the community as “legitimate peripheral participants” (3). SMART Teams do this by involving high school students in the creation of a “thinking tool”— a physical model of a protein— that is not currently present in the research lab but is valued by those who work there. To design a protein model that is useful in a research project, the students must understand the questions being asked, why they are important and the way in which young people— not unlike themselves— go to the bench every day to set up experiments that result in one more piece of evidence to support a story illustrated by the model. The physical model becomes much more than a physical representation of the protein’s structure. The model becomes a physical embodiment of the process whereby our understanding of the structure and function of the protein became known.

Twenty SMART Teams from all across the U.S. attended the ASBMB annual meeting in Anaheim, where they presented their modeling projects as part of the Undergraduate Research Poster Competition. Watch for SMART Teams at next year’s annual meeting. And, when you see a group of excited young high school students walking around with a physical model of a protein, introduce yourself— and welcome them into science community.


1. Herman, T., Morris, J., Colton, S., Batiza, A., Patrick, M., Franzen, M., and Goodsell, D. S. (2006) Tactile Teaching: Exploring Protein Structure/Function using Physical Models. Biochem. Mol. Biol. Edu. 34, 247 – 254.
2. Herman, T., Colton, S., and Franzen, M. (2008) Rethinking Outreach: Teaching the Process of Science through Modeling. PLoS Biol. 6, e86.
3. Lave, J., and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Tim Herman ( is the director of the Center for BioMolecular Modeling at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. If you’d like to meet him, he will be staffing one of the ASBMB booths at the USA Science and Engineering Festival in October.

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