Does caffeine make you feel awake or keep you from feeling sleepy? How does sugar evoke the sensation of sweet? By exploring questions like these students start to understand how chemicals in foods, drinks, and drugs (legal and illegal) have effect on the body.  Aside from helping students become more informed consumers of things like sugar, caffeine, gluten, ethanol (in consumable alcohol) and nicotine (in tobacco products), these investigations should also give ideas regarding choices for a healthy body and future.

These modules originated from a community engagement partnership between Sheryl Hemkin's Chemistry 401 class (Drug Interactions and the Body) and the Knox Substance Abuse Action Team (KSAAT). Responding to survey and focus group results for non-high school students, KSAAT was interested in developing drug education modules for middle school students that had more scientific background with respect to how the drug/chemical interacts with the body. St. Vincent de Paul’s school was recruited as our third partner so we could pilot these drug/science education lessons in Sharon Tharp’s sixth grade science class.

As the lessons developed they centered on the science of how drugs and other chemicals, like sugar, caffeine, and nicotine, work in the body. There is a continuity as to how these actions occur, and for some students, learning more about the science behind these interactions may make it more clear why using drugs like tobacco or alcohol is not friendly to your body – and can be very destructive, particularly when your body and brain is still developing. 

The modules were developed with the understanding that the sixth grade standards for science include a physical science component that focuses on atoms and molecules. These science ideas were combined with explorations of molecules that are familiar (sucrose or table sugar, caffeine, gluten, ethanol in consumable alcohol, and nicotine in tobacco products), with the intention that the students would become more informed consumers of foods and drugs and ideally make healthier choices with respect to their food and drug intake.

Ultimately each of the modules will contain discussion ideas and in-class hands-on activities that should allow the students to visualize what the molecules look like (they will have models to touch and move), how they interact in the body, and their down stream effects in the body. This work should be accessible to people that have some understanding of atoms and molecules, however the sucrose (table sugar) module has some introductory activities to help make the lessons useable for all. In addition, introductions using “non-drug” compounds may bring down conversational barriers that might be present if the first modules used are ethanol or nicotine.


Browse the Chemistry 401: Drug Interactions and the Body Collections:

1. Sucrose

2. Caffeine

4. Ethanol

5. Nicotine

Drug Interactions and the Body: Videos