The University of Rhode Island proposes the development of a new program to cultivate STEM learning for high school students. This program – HERBAL: Hands-on Education and Research for Biomedical and Analytical Learning – is composed of teacher training workshops followed by an academic year laboratory paired with game-based learning modules centered on molecules from medicinal plants. The academic year course will be followed by hands-on summer research with student-generated data at the University of Rhode Island. The HERBAL program will serve as an excellent entry point for life-long STEM learning, and it will connect plants with their cultural and traditional importance to human health and well-being, and HERBAL will increase student access to cutting-edge analysis and informatics tools to understand the metabolite composition of these plants.
Life-long education and learning in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) is necessary for society at large to adapt to a 21st century world and beyond. This is especially true at the high school level, where students begin to translate the imagination, discovery, and curiosity of middle school science to higher-level science and analysis, which will then advance further when university studies begin. Enhancing STEM literacy requires that science, technology, engineering, and math training be accessible and engaging to high school studies, well before university studies even begin. Faculty in the College of Pharmacy at the University of Rhode Island train upper-division undergraduate students in course-based undergraduate research experiences or CUREs in medicinal chemistry. Course participants become more than just learners; they become motivated researchers involved in a genuine scientific effort designed to enable future biomedical discoveries. One deliverable that students create during their medicinal chemistry course is a plant extract library from specimens in the Heber W. Youngken Jr. Medicinal Garden. This library is named PRISM – the Principal Rhode Island Secondary Metabolite library. We propose to extend the concept of a medicinal chemistry CURE and authentic research experiences to the high school level (9-12 grades) by developing HERBAL: Hands-on Education and Research for Biomedical and Analytical Learning. HERBAL will pair research in the laboratory with game-based online classroom modules to teach theory and methods of medicinal plant and herbal product analysis during the academic year. Summer sessions will allow students in the HERBAL program to analyze samples they themselves have generated on cutting-edge instrumentation available in the University of Rhode Island’s teaching laboratories. Additionally, we will focus on the beneficial wellness aspects of herbals and their integrated role in our biomedicine along with artistic and creative opportunities connecting medicinal plant research to drawing and illustration. The HERBAL program will consist of 1) teacher training workshops to educate instructors on how to deliver the HERBAL academic year program. 2) Teacher training will be followed by an academic laboratory course for students with game-based learning modules to train students in theory and application. 3) Following completion of the academic year, students will attend a summer course in chromatography, mass spectrometry, and informatics analysis. This summer course will be complemented with mentorship, career enhancement activities, guest speakers on herbal medicine, and artistic and wellness events. HERBAL’s focus on curricular and method development activities augmented with interactive digital-media based learning modules will shift the paradigm in how these students traditionally learn science, which will increase student interest in STEM topics and enhance their STEM identity.