Billings Central High
Chance Robinson, Daniel Meyer and Bethany Davis, from left, demonstrate a model of a neuron Thursday at Billings Central High. The students in Deb Wines’ class are using data from and collaborating on a study to investigate how genes and the environment affect smoking behavior. BOB ZELLAR/Gazette Staff

While the rest of Montana focuses on the launch of the statewide smoking ban Thursday, biology students at Central High have been asking their own questions that dig a little deeper than "Where can people smoke?"

Instead, they're contributing to a University of Washington Department of Genome Sciences project, called StarNet, by asking "Why do people smoke and why did they start doing it?"

For three weeks at the beginning of the school year, about 110 students at Central bounced questions off the project's database of information to investigate how genes and environment affect smoking behavior. When all is said and done, their results will be compiled and added to StarNet.

"I think it's very encouraging to be involved in something like this, to learn firsthand how these studies are done," said freshman Chance Robinson.

StarNet was designed to go along with already established high school curriculums. At Central, students have been learning about things like neurotransmission in the human brain, reward pathways for behavior like smoking and the physiological basis for addiction.

To that effect, the students began posing questions about smoking behavior to help get to the root of the environmental and genetic factors that may be involved. They asked questions like "Does participating in sports decrease the odds you'll become a smoker?" or "If you're parents smoke, will it increase your chances of becoming a smoker?" and then applied those questions to the database. The database is made up of the answers of 300 people who filled out an 86-question survey regarding why they do or do not smoke and submitted blood samples for DNA analysis.

"It's real science," said Central biology teacher Deb Wines, who brought the project to the school. "That's what really differentiates this."

Currently in its third of three phases, the project doesn't just let the students play scientist - it makes them the real thing, and they're contributing to a study that teachers and UW educators hope can have a significant impact.

"It's an understanding of drug addiction and abuse," said Maureen Munn, UW Department of Genome Science's director of education outreach. "I hope that we will make an impact in the contribution to scientific literature."

Since StarNet began in 2005 with the goal of involving high school students in human subject research, about 4,000 students have pitched in, including writing the initial survey questions (phase one), genotyping the subjects' DNA and compiling the survey results (phase two) and testing their own questions against the database (phase three). Most of the classrooms involved are in Washington, with one in Oregon as well. Central is the only Montana school involved.

The project is funded by a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Wines said she came across the project as she was looking for genomics classroom activities over the summer. After attending a workshop with about a dozen other teachers, she had the information and resources to incorporate it into the classroom. She also hopes to incorporate it into her advanced-placement biology class later this school year.

Central students who have helped say they've already taken in quite a bit of new information, especially about smoking behavior, thanks in large part to their hands-on studies.

"Most people think smoking is a willpower thing," freshman Bethany Davis said. "We've learned that's not the case."