U Arizona Develops High School Lesson on Vaccine Development

Researchers at the University of Arizona have worked with Tucson teachers to develop a lesson that would allow high schoolers to learn about the use of computational analysis for biological questions. The lesson is intended to help teachers adapt the teaching of science without having access to a classroom or lab.

Originally developed before the pandemic, the lesson keys in on a question especially relevant for these times: Would SARS-CoV-2 spike protein — the one behind COVID-19 — be a good choice as a target for vaccine development?

Details of the lesson have been published in September 2021 issue of The American Biology Teacher, a magazine published by the National Association of Biology Teachers.

Most recently, the researchers have added an addendum to the lesson, to help teachers and students examine emerging variants using the activity.

The lesson plan has been tested in three Tucson-area high schools, where some science classes studied proteins of all seven coronaviruses: four that cause the common cold as well as the SARS, MERS and SARS-CoV-2 viruses.

In the lesson, students learn how different vaccines work and conduct a comparison of protein sequences. By looking at the uniqueness of spike proteins, the students are able to see the "evolutionary relatedness" of the seven coronaviruses from their computer at home. By the end of the lesson, students have compared spike protein sequences of different versions of SARS-CoV-2 to each other and seen that the sequence similarity within the spike proteins make them good vaccine candidates.

The work came out of the BIOTECH Project, which has produced materials, equipment and training to conduct molecular genetics experiments with high school students.

"This past school year was challenging for those of us in education. However, lessons concerning SARS-CoV-2 were a natural direction for virtual instruction since it combines the relevance of COVID with at-home computer use for genetic data analysis," said lead study author Nadja Anderson, an assistant professor of practice in the UArizona Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology and director of the BIOTECH Project, in a statement.

"We had the students looking at the protein sequences of the spike protein — the protein on the outside of the virus that makes it a prime candidate for your immune system to target and create immune response," Anderson explained.

Anderson said that she said she hopes the lesson will help students gain an understanding about viruses and vaccines and how they work: "If [students] understand how vaccines work and are made, then they can critically analyze information and hopefully they can weed their way through all of the misinformation."

In addition to providing online lessons during the pandemic, Anderson and her team have developed kits for separating and analyzing DNA, to help students experiment at home. More than a thousand of these "DIY Electrophoresis" kits were sent to students in Tucson, enabling them to analyze DNA from a number of lessons developed by the BIOTECH Project, including mock crime scene activities and simulated genetic testing.

Anderson said that as students "became advocates for safety at home," they also promoted the need for vaccinations. "The work from the BIOTECH Project not only enhanced the education of these students, but also of our community."

To learn more, visit the BIOTECH Project website and the Project Activities page.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.