Educator’s Corner

educator’s
corner

Welcome to the Biomedical Beat Educator’s Corner! This free resource is designed for educators to build on the existing STEM content from Pathways through the integration of supplemental material in Biomedical Beat blog posts. The Educator’s Corner is intended to give you additional tools to use in your lesson plans.

Pathways is a collection of free educational resources about basic biomedical science and research careers, created through NIGMS’ collaboration with Scholastic, Inc. The Pathways materials, designed for grades 6 through 12, include student magazines, educator lesson plans, activities, and videos.

Below you’ll find a carefully curated list of blog posts from NIGMS that connect topically to issues of Pathways. We also provide suggestions for how to use the posts as educational supplements.


The Vaccine Science Issue cover
The Brain and Anesthesia Issue cover
The Imaging Issue cover
Superbugs cover
The Circadian Rhythms Issue cover
The Regeneration Issue cover
Basic Science Careers cover

The Vaccine Science Issue

Science Snippet: RNA’s Remarkable Roles

Single strand of RNA
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RNA molecules play essential roles in protein building and other cellular processes. They also have the potential to help prevent, diagnose, and treat disease.

This post discusses RNA’s role in protein synthesis and in the COVID-19 vaccines, which is the topic of Pathways.

ACTIVITY

After students have read the blog post, have them compare and contrast the mRNA found naturally in our bodies and the mRNA found in vaccines, either individually or in small groups. Then have students share their conclusions with the class. Examples: both are made of nucleotides, both are recognized by the body as instructions for making proteins, both lead to protein synthesis, our bodies make the endogenous mRNA and scientists make the vaccine mRNA, endogenous mRNA codes for human proteins while the vaccine mRNA codes for a viral protein.

Science Snippet: The Marvels of Membranes

An illustration of a cell cut in half with gray lines indicating its borders and borders of adjacent cells. The cell contains a variety of round and oblong structures in several colors.
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The boundaries of cells and many organelles are marked by membranes—layers of lipids and proteins. Membranes not only provide structure, but also control the import and export of molecules and support cellular communication.

For mRNA vaccines to be effective, they must be able to cross membranes. Pathways mentions that the mRNA is specially packaged to cross these membranes.

ACTIVITY

Once students have read the blog post, ask them why they think that lipid nanoparticles are necessary for the mRNA to survive and be effective. The lipid nanoparticles encapsulate the mRNA by creating a bubblelike barrier that won’t rapidly disintegrate. They also help the mRNA get into cells, which is necessary for their transformation into spike proteins. Cell membranes are composed of fatty lipids too, so the nanoparticles can pass through them without needing a specialized transport protein like large or charged molecules usually do. Once the nanoparticle is inside the cell, it eventually disintegrates and releases its mRNA package into the cell. Optional demonstration: You can do this demonstration in front of the class or divide the students into small groups and have them do it on their own. Drop some oil into a glass of water. You’ll see the oil immediately form small bubbles that will merge into larger bubbles. Ask the students to explain how this demonstration mimics lipid nanoparticles. The small bubbles that form are like nanoparticles, staying away from the water. The small bubbles merging into larger ones are an example of how the nanoparticles will be allowed through the membrane, since lipids and oil are both fats and prefer to be with other fatty things rather than with water.

In Other Words: Translation Isn’t Only for Languages

Below the title “Translation: In Other Words,” two images are separated by a jagged line. On the left, is a large speech bubble with the word “hello” surrounded by smaller speech bubbles with greetings in other languages, and on the right is a ribosome producing a protein. Under the images, text reads, “Did you know? In biomedical science, translation refers to the process of making proteins based on genetic information encoded in messenger RNA.”
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What comes to mind when you hear or see the word translation? Likely, you might think about converting words from one language into another. But in biology, translation means producing proteins from messenger RNA. It’s part of the system through which DNA directs the processes of life. Our cells carry out translation constantly to build protein molecules that transport oxygen, defend us against infection, and perform many other tasks.

This post explains how the body makes proteins from mRNA, which is what’s found in the vaccines for COVID-19 described in Pathways.

ACTIVITY

Have students read the short post individually or as a class. Then discuss how the COVID-19 vaccine skips a few of the early steps mentioned in this post by directly delivering mRNA (so no need for RNA polymerase to access the DNA and copy it into mRNA). Have students follow along with the post’s description to discuss how mRNA is converted into the spike protein (all part of step three of the Pathways infographic): mRNA is injected and gets into the cell, the ribosome reads and translates the mRNA into amino acids, and those amino acids are folded into the spike protein. Then the spike protein activates the immune system to create immunity within the body (steps 4-6 in the infographic).

COVID-19 Vaccine and Therapeutic Trials ACTIV-ate in West Virginia

Hands in medical gloves drawing liquid from a vial into a syringe with a model of SARS-CoV-2 in the background.
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The NIH-supported Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines partnership is coordinating nationwide clinical trials of COVID-19 treatments and vaccines. NIGMS-funded clinical and translational research networks are stepping up to help these trials reach underserved areas and populations. In this post, we highlight a network in West Virginia that involves people from rural parts of the state in trials.

This post discusses clinical trials for COVID-19 in rural areas, including the trials for the vaccine described in Pathways.

ACTIVITY

In the blog post, Dr. Sally Hodder says, “When folks participate in the science, when there is good community discussion about the trial designs and the results, then I think those populations may be more trusting of the results.” Ask the students to think of something they were hesitant to do at first, but once they knew the how or why it was being done, they were more open to doing it. Then discuss why it’s important for people from different parts of the country—including rural populations—to participate in clinical trials. It’s not just important for increasing the diversity of the people and locations in the trials, but it also gets more people engaged in and understanding the science that’s happening. Many people are hesitant to get the COVID-19 vaccine because they don’t think the vaccines have gone through enough testing to be safe. But often that actually means that people don’t fully understand the clinical trials process. As a class, discuss the four stages of clinical trials: phase I, experimental; phase II, safety; phase III, effectiveness; and—if approved by the FDA—phase IV, long-term safety and effectiveness (full descriptions found here). Ask the students how involving people in a clinical study could help increase their understanding of the process and the safety of the vaccine as well as their willingness to get vaccinated for COVID-19.

The Brain and Anesthesia Issue

All About Anesthesia

A woman wearing a hospital gown and a hair net, lying on a hospital bed as a gloved hand places a face mask emitting general anesthesia over her nose and mouth.
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Anesthesia is a medical marvel that keeps patients from feeling pain. If you’ve ever had a surgery or even a minor procedure, you’ve probably benefited from it! In this post, we dive into the different types of anesthesia, its history, the way it works, and NIGMS-supported research on it.

ACTIVITY

Have students read the post and infographic to learn more about anesthesia and its history and how it keeps us from feeling pain. Then look at the list of NIGMS-funded anesthesia research at the end of the post and engage students in class discussion, asking them which they would study if they were an anesthesia researcher. For more advanced exploration, divide students into groups, assigning each an NIGMS-funded anesthesia research topic from the list. Have the groups discuss why their topic is important to the broader scope of physical/mental health and wellness. Then have each group share their thoughts with the rest of the class.

Science Snippet: Get to Know Your Nerve Cells

An illustration of a neuron that shows a round cell body with dendrites branching away from it and a long axon.
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Did you know that some cells in our bodies use electricity to carry information? These nerve cells, or neurons, are fundamental for how we interact with our environment. In this post, we explore the role of nerve cells and describe NIGMS-supported research on them.

Nerve cells allow us to feel pain (among other things), and anesthetics, as described in Pathways, prevent us from feeling pain.

ACTIVITY

The post outlines how your brain detects and reacts to something dangerous (for example, a thorn). Divide the class into groups of five to seven students and have each group form a line from one side of the room to the other. The students at the head of the line will act as the brain of the group, the student at the back of the line will be the neuron that senses the trigger, and the ones in between will be the neurons that carry the message. Without telling the entire group, assign each sensing neuron an environmental factor that would trigger a reaction, like a hot stove, a missing rung on a ladder, an unexpected step on muddy ground, a sharp edge, etc. Have the sensing neurons “transmit” their message to the next neuron in line without speaking or touching. Each student (neuron) in line receives the message with their eyes (dendrites), interprets the message with their brain (cell body, nucleus), and then transmits it to the next student with their own body (axon). Once the message makes it to the front of the line, the student acting as the brain can say it out loud. The first group to successfully transmit their message to the brain wins.

Biology Beyond the Lab: Using Computers to Study Life

A professional headshot of Dr. Andre Holder wearing a doctor’s coat.
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Computers and mathematical methods are increasingly important tools for studying biology. In this post, we share the stories of a medical doctor who aims to use these tools to predict sepsis and a computer scientist who applies them to understand cell development pathways.

Pathways discusses machine learning as a possible way to discover a definitive biomarker for pain. This post explains how scientists use computers to study biological processes.

ACTIVITY

Before students read the post, engage them in a quick freewrite about what they think machine learning means and how it’s used in science. After they’ve read the post, have them compare and discuss what they wrote with what they learned and now think of the topic.

The Imaging Issue

Fifty Years of the Protein Data Bank!

Macromolecular structures in the shape of the number 50.
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Since 1971, the Protein Data Bank has served the scientific community as an open-access resource of 3D protein structures. To celebrate 50 years as a key resource in the community, we spotlight an educational board game that simulates the process of determining a protein’s structure. Knowing the structures of proteins and other biological molecules helps scientists understand their roles in human health and disease and leads to the discovery of new and more effective medications.

Researchers use many imaging techniques in determining protein (and other macromolecular) structures. Some of these techniques are described in Pathways, and others are introduced in this post.

ACTIVITY

After reading the post, divide students into small groups to play PDB50: The Game simulating how researchers identify macromolecular structures.

Cool Video: A Biological Lava Lamp

A cone-shaped structure containing round objects of various sizes.
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The glowing, twisting cells in this video look just like a bubbling lava lamp, but they actually show a step of egg cell development.

The video was taken using a confocal laser scanning microscopy (sometimes shortened to just “confocal microscopy”), one of the techniques mentioned in the Pathways timeline (1970s).

ACTIVITY

Have students research what confocal microscopy is. They can start with our glossary definition (also linked in the post). Then have them search our image and video gallery to find another cool image that was taken using this method (Search term “confocal”) and describe what they see in the image and why it’s important or being studied.

You can also do this exercise with any of our other Cool Images posts. Pick a type of microscopy, a color, or a component of a cell for your students to research and then search the image and video gallery.

A Focus on Microscopes: See Eye-Catching Images

A transparent S-shape with a blue spot at the top on a white background.
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Did you know that there are many kinds of microscopes? Each offers its own advantages to researchers studying the tiny components of life, but all of them can capture eye-catching images.

The images in this post were taken using some of the imaging techniques described in Pathways.

DISCUSSION

Using the captions in the slideshow pictures, discuss what cell parts or phenomena the images are showing and why scientists might be studying them.

Through the Looking Glass: Microscopic Structures in Many Sizes

A still shot of the Cell Size and Scale interactive.
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Microscopic structures can vary greatly in size. The largest objects that we view through microscopes are about 10 million times larger than the smallest!

The relative sizes in the microscopic world described in Pathways can be difficult to conceptualize. This post describes an interactive tool to view these relative sizes.

ACTIVITY

Use the Cell Size and Scale interactive supported by our Science Education Partnership Award program to illustrate how cells, viruses, proteins, and more measure up. One of the largest objects on the scale is a grain of rice. Start the lesson by giving each student a grain of rice to hold as they think about how small each object on the scale really is. Give the students a list of some of the items shown on the scale and ask them to place them in order from largest to smallest. Then, either as a group or individually, have them slide the scale from the largest items to the smallest atom to see how well they did.

Superbugs

Antibiotic Resistance and Researchers Studying It

Quiz logo
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Test your knowledge of bacterial infections with this quiz, using examples from some of the scientists we’ve featured on the blog who explore new ways to fight antibiotic resistance. This post and Pathways discuss antibiotic resistance.

ACTIVITY
Read the introduction of the post together as a class. Divide the students into groups of four, and have each student read a different post from the list at the bottom of the quiz. Then have the groups answer the quiz questions together. As a class, discuss how the groups worked together to answer the quiz questions. You can also talk about the researchers’ backgrounds and how they became scientists with questions like:
  • How did they know they wanted to be a scientist?
  • What made them choose the field of research that they’re in now?
  • Can you see yourself having a career like this scientist?

Science Snippet: Brush Up on Biofilms

A red-stained circle with raised ridges, and a smaller circle in the middle.
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Microbes often form organized communities called biofilms. Some are useful to people, but others cause disease. Many NIGMS-supported researchers study biofilms and are developing ways to combat those that can threaten your health.

Pathways describes antibiotic-resistant superbugs, and this post describes biofilms, which are also antibiotic resistant.

DISCUSSION

Biofilms can form through quorum sensing. This is a complex form of communication where individual bacteria produce chemical signals in response to the population density around them. Other bacteria can sense these signaling molecules to determine information about their environment and regulate their responses.

After reading the post, discuss quorum sensing with your students through the example of a TikTok (or other social media) trend. An individual user creates content, just as an individual bacterium produces a signaling molecule. Other users see that post and make their own similar content, creating a trend. This is similar to what happens when other bacteria sense the signaling chemicals and put out their own in response. Social media trends don’t last long before the next thing hits, and similarly, a bacterium must continue to produce chemicals to communicate with other bacteria in the quorum. You can also watch this YouTube video on quorum sensing.

Cool Images: Bewitching Bacteria

A green pattern resembling a flower on a red background.
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The effects of bacteria on our bodies range from helpful to life threatening. But regardless of their relationship to us, many species of bacteria can be surprisingly stunning.

This post shows pictures of bacteria, and Pathways is all about bacteria and superbugs.

ACTIVITY

Have each student (or group of students) choose one of the four bacteria shown in the post to research. (To make this activity more difficult, have them search our image and video gallery for types of bacteria not found in this post.) Have them write 2-3 sentences about the bacterium, including what type of bacteria it is, where it’s commonly found, what diseases it can cause, which of those diseases can be treated with medicine, and what versions of drug-resistant superbugs are known or common.

Exploring Nature’s Treasure Trove of Helpful Compounds

Yellow spheres attached to a sinewy red structure.
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Compounds that plants, fungi, bacteria, and animals produce can sometimes help people as well. In fact, many medicines, molecules used in research, and other useful compounds originated in nature.

Natural products are a source for new antibiotics that may help us fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria and superbugs.

ACTIVITY

Ask the students if they can think of a natural product. Caffeine is probably the natural product they’re most familiar with, but many life-saving medicines are also natural products. Caffeine is naturally found in tea leaves and coffee beans. When you brew a cup of tea or coffee, you've actually extracted caffeine and lots of other natural products out of the plant material (tea leaves or coffee beans). When researchers want to study a natural product, they start by extracting lots of chemicals out of the plant—like your cup of tea—and then take that tea and further purify it to isolate just the chemical(s) they’re looking for. This post discusses some of the difficulties that natural product researchers face and how they’re working to overcome them.

Pair and Share: Read the introduction paragraph as a class, then divide students into four groups to each read one of the sections in the article (Seaweed Empowers Neuroscience Research, Discovering New Antibiotics, Replacing Plastic, and Advancing Natural Products Research with Better Libraries of Microbes). Have the groups discuss the section and come up with one sentence that summarizes the research. Then come back together so that a representative from each group can share their summaries.

The Circadian Rhythms Issue

Quiz: What Can Research Organisms Reveal About Health?

Two fruit flies facing one another.
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Research organisms such as fruit flies and mice help scientists better understand basic biological processes and develop treatments for human diseases. This interactive quiz tests your knowledge of these important creatures.

Much of what we know about circadian rhythms in humans was first discovered in research organisms.

ACTIVITY

Have students test their knowledge of research organisms with this quiz. They can learn more about uncommon research organisms by reading the post, Amazing Organisms and the Lessons They Can Teach Us.

Scientist Interview: Investigating Circadian Rhythms with Michael W. Young

A human silhouette containing clocks throughout the head and body that are intended to represent circadian rhythms.
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When circadian rhythms are disrupted—for instance, by the beginning or ending of daylight saving time that occurs each March and November—we often feel “off” until our bodies adjust. But for some people, this adjustment never happens. Nobel laureate Michael W. Young, Ph.D., describes his current research on circadian rhythms and delayed sleep phase disorder in a short video interview.

The scientist interviewed in this post, Dr. Michael W. Young, was awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize for his research on circadian rhythms.

ACTIVITY

Watch the video interview as a class. Dr. Young discusses a mutation that can lead to delayed sleep phase disorder. Ask the class what a mutation is (a change in a DNA sequence) and how it might cause a sleep disorder (our DNA is the code that tells our bodies how to function). Use this image to explore how a small change in DNA can result in a physiological change in our bodies. Compare nucleotides to letters, mRNA to those letters typed out, amino acids to words, and the protein to a full sentence. If you choose the wrong letter in a single word, the final sentence probably won’t make sense. Similarly, if one of DNA’s nucleotides is changed, the mRNA, amino acids, and protein will end up changed. (But thankfully, we have spell-check—and in a way, so do our cells! DNA polymerases have a proofreading function to prevent major DNA mutations from occurring.)

The Regeneration Issue

Make Like a Cell and Split: Comparing Mitosis and Meiosis

Image of a cell dividing.
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Mitosis is essential for growth and cell replacement, while meiosis creates egg and sperm cells for reproduction. In this post, an illustration places the two types of cell division side by side, emphasizing their striking similarities and key differences.

Our bodies may not regenerate like some of the research organisms described in Pathways, but they can heal and replace damaged cells through mitosis—the subject of this post.

ACTIVITY

After students have read the post, watch these videos of yeast cells dividing: video 1 and video 2. Explain that researchers have colored different parts of the cells to allow us to see them splitting. Ask students to name a stage of mitosis and when they saw it happen in the clips (cytokinesis is the easiest to see, since the cells split in two). Have them look at some of the images related to the videos (image 1, image 2, image 3, image 4, image 5) and identify cells that are in the various phases of cell division, including interphase.

Quiz Yourself to Grow What You Know About Regeneration

A purple and pink sea urchin on a rock under water.
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Do you know which tissues and organs the human body can regenerate? How about which animals can regrow entire limbs? Our quiz will test your knowledge of regeneration and regenerative medicine.

This post quizzes how much you know about regeneration, the topic of Pathways.

ACTIVITY

After reading Pathways, have students test their knowledge (and probably learn a few more new facts) with this interactive quiz.

Interview With a Scientist: Unlocking the Secrets of Animal Regeneration With Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado

Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado, wearing eyeglasses and a black sweater, and smiling.
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Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado, Ph.D., is making exciting discoveries in the field of regenerative medicine. For the last 2 decades, NIGMS has supported the work of his laboratory in studying flatworms to uncover the genetic and developmental basis of regeneration. In a short video interview, Sánchez Alvarado describes his research findings and how they might impact our health.

Both this post and Pathways feature Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado, Ph.D., and his work in regenerative medicine.

DISCUSSION

Watch the video interview as a class. Then have students choose a research organism—it could be the planarian that Dr. Sánchez Alvarado uses in his work, one from our fact sheet, or another they’re interested in. Instruct them to research and write a paragraph on the organism they choose. They should include information on what the organism is, how it’s useful in studying disease, what (if any) discoveries have been made studying it that have shaped human health, and what benefits and limits it has over other research organisms. (These questions are taken from the headers of the fact sheet, so students can use it as a model for their own writing.)

Basic Science Careers

How Research Works: Understanding the Process of Science

Cartoon scientists working together to answer research questions around a large magnifying glass with a question mark in the middle.
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Have you ever wondered how scientific discoveries are made? Scientists follow the scientific method when they ask questions about the world around them. They perform experiments, analyze their results, and draw conclusions based on the results.

Pathways introduces the important role that scientists play in understanding the world around us, and all scientists use the scientific method as they make discoveries—which is explained in this post.

ACTIVITY

After students have read the article, ask them if they think the item you’ve chosen for this activity will dissolve faster in cold or hot water. (Colorful hard candies work great, but if you don’t have any, salt or sugar also works.) Have students think about the steps of the scientific method outlined in the post to decide how they’d answer the question. Instruct them to write down their hypothesis, the techniques they’ll need to find the answer, and the evidence they’ll collect in the process. Then, as a class, apply the process with a demonstration to determine an answer. (You’ll need two cups, preferably clear, one with cold and the other with hot water. Add equal amounts of the hard candy, salt, or sugar and watch to see which dissolves first.) Ask the students if their hypotheses were correct and if this demonstration sparked any other questions that they can test using the scientific method.

Any of our Being a Scientist Posts!

Female scientist wearing a mask and holding a test tube with a microscope in the background.
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We regularly interview scientists to hear about their research and what led them to where they are in their careers. Check out our Q&As with:

We also have posts highlighting some of the researchers featured in Pathways, including Computational Biologist Melissa Wilson and Geneticist Michael Young. You can find new posts under the Being a Scientist category.

Pathways discusses the importance of basic science, and these posts highlight researchers who study different fields of basic science.

DISCUSSION

Have students read one of the Being a Scientist posts. Then, in a class discussion, ask questions specific to that post, such as: Did this person always want to become a scientist, or when they were your age, did they think they’d grow up to do something else? What training and education does this scientist have? What’s interesting about their career path? What’s interesting about their science? What tools or techniques does the scientist use in their research? How is the basic science that they do related to human health?

Select an issue from the dropdown above to view blog posts that directly or indirectly connect to the Pathways topics along with activity suggestions for how to use the posts as educational supplements.


Other Resources for Your Classroom

If you’re looking for other educational supplements, check out the short scientific posts in these series:

In Other Words.

Posts comparing a word that means one thing in everyday language and another in science

Quizzes.

Posts in quiz format on various scientific topics

Science Snippets.

Short posts exploring basic science topics

Find more educational content and curriculum supplements on our Pinterest board and our NIH-wide K-12 STEM resources website.

We’d love to hear how you’re using these resources or if there’s one you suggest that we add. Feel free to leave these comments below!

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