Students learn by drawing, building, and creating computer models, just like college and graduate students.
Decoding The Periodic Table
In the first days of every program, students learn how to decode the periodic table to draw an element’s electron configuration, which is the key to understanding its bonding behavior. This requires students to become literate in several kinds of chemistry nomenclatures, shown here. This quiz response shows that the noble gas argon, with its outer orbital of eight paired electrons will not form bonds, while carbon, with its four unpaired electrons will require four more electrons from hydrogen to complete its octet. This concept forms the basis for understanding organic chemistry.
Molecular models, like this one, generated by a 5th grader, are used to explore large-scale biochemical structures. By lesson 12, students really can interpret enzyme and DNA structures like this one, the same way a biochemistry graduate student can. This image, generated in PyMol, was created using the atomic coordinates downloaded from the Protein Data Bank, an online resource used by scientists around the world. It shows four p53 proteins complexed to a piece of DNA which in turn promotes expression of an important anti-cancer protein. Activities like these bring kids to the cutting edge of medical research.
After only a few classes, students achieve what is seen in university courses. Here, a 4th grader draws a peptide with the amino acid sequence C-H-E-M-I-S-T-R-Y. This fun exercise of spelling out peptides using the one-letter codes for the 20 amino acids is standard curriculum for senior-level biochemistry courses and helps students memorize the amino acids and correctly draw peptide bonds. With an understanding of simple peptides, students can begin to learn any topic in the fields of protein science, enzymology, and medicine.
Rapid And Advanced Learning
The speed that students advance through our curriculum is impressive. After only about 6 hours of instruction, the student here gained the ability to draw the DNA base pairs from memory. Although quite an unbelievable achievement, this level of work is typical for us.
Important questions like “What is a gene?” can only really be answered when a student understands chemistry to atomic resolution. Here, a 3rd grader uses a kid-friendly codon wheel to decode the DNA sequence of A (adenine), T (thymine), G (guanidine), and C (cystosine) to write the amino acid sequence encoded by the gene. These exercises allow a students to gain a sophisticated understanding of mutations, genetic disorders, and cancer.
Computer modeling activities accompany each lesson. Students first learn chemistry theory though custom animated presentations, then do hands on model building activities to feel the geometries and conformations of biomolecules, and finish with 3D computer modeling activities where students build large-scale structures. This structure, generated by a 5th grader, is the hemoglobin tetramer, and shows how the hemes, which through their central iron atoms, bind to oxygen gas molecules. Biological questions like, “How does oxygen travel through the body?” can really only be answered using this kind of high-resolution modeling.
Hand-held molecular modeling is an essential part of our curriculum. Every day, students spend time building and observing 3D models like the one here. In chemistry, structure and function are closely linked, and understanding the properties of a structure is often the key to understanding how it works. Here, a student draws part of the PETE polyethylene polymer from the model they built. These very large molecules are one of the most common kinds of plastics. Understanding what everyday things are made of is extremely exciting for the students, and can begin a discussion of the environmental impact of the widespread use of these materials.
We strive to give students high-level understanding of science, but our greatest goal to inspire them to plan their own future of discovery and invention. The work here is from an advanced 5th grade student who has begun a highly creative and imaginative project, all on his own, of creating (and naming) new biochemical structures. He has begun improvising on the concepts learned in the class to create molecules that have never been seen before. Integrating genetics, inorganic chemistry, amino acid chemistry, and several other concepts, he has truly begun to think like a scientist.