California Project Shows Students How Real Science Works

This is Archived content. This content is available for historical purposes only. It may not reflect the current state of science or language from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). For current information, please visit

"As a DART team, we learned quite a bit about real scientific research that will prove to be invaluable in the future." - From a students' report on a study at Sierra High School in Manteca, California, investigating whether pseudoephedrine causes genetic mutations in drosophila fruit flies.

A NIDA-supported science education project is showing California high school students that real science can be more fun and satisfying than the "weird science" portrayed in Hollywood movies. The statewide project, which brings together students, teachers, and scientists in Drug Abuse Research Teams (DART) to conduct original research studies, has been stimulating students' interest in science and increasing their knowledge of drug abuse and how research studies are carried out.

The DART project is operated by the San Joaquin County Office of Education in Stockton, California, under a NIDA Science Education Drug Abuse Partnership Award. For each of the past 2 years, the project has recruited a science teacher and 3 students from each of 20 participating California high schools to form teams to carry out year-long drug abuse research projects. Teachers and students attend a summer science institute, develop their own research hypothesis, and enlist a mentor scientist from a nearby university or laboratory to help them carry out the project. Each team conducts its research project and presents its findings to a scientific audience at the end of the school year.

DARTDART students use microscopes to examine changes of water fleas exposed to different concentrations of caffeine or a nicotine substitute.

The summer science institute that launches DART participants on their voyage of scientific discovery is an intense 2-week introduction to scientific research held at a nearby university. In the first week, teachers attend sessions covering topics such as formulating a hypothesis and developing a methodology to test it, conducting Internet searches, using laboratory equipment and materials, conducting experiments with living organisms, and preparing lab reports and presentations. "It was a very hands-on program that showed us how to do scientific research," says Steven Unterholzner, a chemistry teacher from Sierra High School in Manteca, California, who participated in the project last year. In the second week, the teachers take their students through the same series of hands-on sessions.

"From the institute, I learned the research process, and it has been very valuable in our... research as a team. It has helped us organize our research in a logical manner so that we do not overlook any essential steps." - From a student's report on a study at Sonora High School in La Habra, California, investigating the effects of anabolic supplements on crayfish growth.

Everything DART students learn at the institute is linked to conceptualizing their own research project and determining how they will approach it, says Debby Pearson, who coordinates DART for the San Joaquin County Office of Education. Students often select research topics that relate to issues they are dealing with in their lives, such as the effects of steroids, caffeine, alcohol, and dietary supplements on the mind and , she says. However, because of the students' age and various legal and regulatory restrictions, they are limited to working with invertebrates and cannot actually work with illicit drugs to explore the effects of drug abuse. These limitations present the first of many real-world constraints that DART teams have to overcome to carry out their research projects.

"My students were interested in doing research on methamphetamine because more meth is made here in the San Joaquin Valley than anywhere else in the world," says Mr. Unterholzner. During the course of their background research, the students discovered that people were buying large amounts of over-the-counter cold medications that contain pseudoephedrine because they could convert the chemical into methamphetamine. The students decided to test different doses of pseudoephedrine on fruit flies to see if this methamphetamine precursor could produce genetic mutations, he says.

DARTStudents learn procedures for a test to identify HIV-positive patients. Using a micropipette, they place minute amounts of fish protein into a special gel so that they can separate and identify specific proteins.

The results of the project were inconclusive, but that wasn't really important, says Mr. Unterholzner. "The kids really enjoyed it. They learned how to conduct scientific research and that it was okay to come up with inconclusive results because you could at least rule out that approach. If you had the time and money you could try a different approach, which is what real researchers do," he says.

To help them deal with the many theoretical and practical problems they encounter during their research, each DART team recruits a science mentor who guides and assists the team throughout the project. The scientists challenge students' assumptions, validate the methods being used to test the hypothesis, and help secure equipment needed to conduct the experiments.

"Dr. Thomas has helped by... checking with a microbiologist to find out if what we are suggesting is possible, identifying other possible techniques and protocols, and most importantly, asking the students dozens of questions about what their goals, priorities, and expectations are..." - From a teacher's report on a study at Lodi High School in Lodi, California, investigating the effects of caffeine and nicotine on yeast.

"My students collected cigarette smoke, because cigarettes are addictive, and tried to measure its potential to cause mutations," says Mark Knize, a research scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Mr. Knize served as science mentor on a research project conducted by DART teams from Tracy High School and West High School in Tracy, California. The students used a small vacuum pump to collect the smoke and a microbiology test to assess the mutagenic effects on bacteria of smoke from different brands of cigarettes. "The study found that both filtered and unfiltered cigarettes were incredibly mutagenic on these tests," says Mr. Knize. "This was very dramatic for the students to see.

"My students learned how to work with a scientist, what equipment to use and how to use it to carry out the tests, and how to use the laboratory's library facilities to do indepth literature searches," he says. "Overall, they got a taste of the things research scientists do in their jobs all day long."

For some DART students, the voyage of discovery that began at the summer science institute has continued beyond the completion of their research projects. Mr. Knize thought so highly of one of the students on his DART research team that he hired the young woman, who is now majoring in biology at a nearby college, to work as a part-time lab assistant. Another young woman who was a member of Mr. Unterholzner's DART team is now a premed student at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. A young man from another DART team was accepted into a prestigious and highly competitive summer science internship program at the University of California, Davis.

DART also has changed the way many teachers who participated in the project teach science. "I still use some of the activities that we learned at the institute in my classroom," says Mr. Unterholzner. "The kids like them, I enjoy them, and they really get the idea across about how to conduct research." As a result, "Most kids in my chemistry classes now are designing experimental protocols. I give them a problem and they go through the whole research design method. We do very few of what I call ?cookbook' labs any more. I think they learn more this way."

A DART Board of Student Projects

Working within limitations imposed by various regulatory agencies, the California school system, and the age of the participants, high school students participating in the DART project tackled an assortment of research questions, including:

  • Will the combination of stress and a substance that causes mutations affect the rate at which mutations occur?
  • Is there a potential for developing tolerance to herbal stimulants and therefore a potential for abuse?
  • Is there a chemical in alcohol that causes addiction?
  • Do daphnia (water fleas) have a caffeine tolerance threshold?
  • Do the number and frequency of positive interactions in a person's life affect how susceptible one is to nicotine addiction?