September 2010

Teaching Science Through Protein Modeling

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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