08:15 AM

The Chemistry of Drug Abuse

Service-Learning Students Educate High Schoolers on the ‘Why’ to ‘Be Aware’


By Sheryl E. Taylor

The harsh reality of drug usage among high school students is staggering.

According to an analysis conducted by Chron.com in 2016 and data obtained from the Texas Education Agency, nearly 50% of the top 30 high schools with the highest percentage of drug-related incidents belong to the Fort Bend Independent School District and Houston Independent School District. And the numbers keep growing.

Dr. Vishakha ‘Vish’ Shembekar and students in her CHEM 1201: Organic Chemistry Lab I and CHEM 1202: Organic Chemistry Lab II conducted their service-learning project “Damaging Effects of Drug Abuse on the Lifestyle of High School Students.” To do so, the students collected and organized information about the myriad abusive drugs (both prescription and non-prescription drugs) that are used by high schoolers.

“The inspiration was the current situation about drug abuse. Since my students are learning Organic Chemistry, I thought they would make a good connection between learning and spreading awareness about these drugs,” noted Shembekar, who is pictured at left.Vish-Prof-Pic

It has also been reported that 40% of high school students use street drugs in the Houston and Katy areas. About 39% of 12th graders, 25% of 11th graders, 20% of 10th graders, and 16% of 9th grade students are exposed to drugs such as cocaine, Adderall, Vicodin, Ritalin, and many others. 

With this information, Shembekar’s students researched various drugs, prepared brochures, posters, surveys, presentations, and visited two Houston high schools—Avalos P-TECH School in Aldine ISD and HISD’s High School for Law and Justice—to spread awareness among these students. The ultimate goal for UHD students is to connect and extend their knowledge and skills from their own academic study/field/discipline to the service-learning project. The connection to the two high schools was made by Momentum Education, a strong partner with the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning.

“The school visits were extremely positive, the students were very receptive, and the teachers were excited to have UHD students there,” said Shembekar. “We received invitations from both of the schools we visited to give presentations to other classes because the teachers saw the value.”  

Shembekar continued, “One additional benefit is that high school students also learned how UHD is a great place for them to do additional activities like this while studying for their degree.”

“Dr. Shembekar’s (and previously Dr. Hamida Qavi) service-learning project is remarkable,” said Dr. Poonam Gulati, Executive Director, Impact Learning Office and Associate Professor of Microbiology and Biology. “It benefits our students, who learn about the chemistry of commonly used street drugs and how they affect the human body. The high school students learn about the effects of such drugs and will hopefully make wiser decisions when tempted to try them.”

UHD’s Service Learning, within the Impact Learning Office’s Center for Community Engagement & Service Learning, is a pedagogical strategy that engages students by building connections between the knowledge gained in courses and experiences in the community. Understanding community issues and thinking about solutions to address them is a key component of the approach. Service learning has been shown to enhance understanding of concepts, evoke empathy, and sharpen soft skills including communication, critical thinking, and teamwork. Such engagement also has a positive impact on students’ academics and generates a sense of belonging to the University. Currently at UHD, approximately 125 course sections per year are designated as service learning. This designation appears on the students’ transcripts to indicate that service learning is not merely an add-on to a course but an “integral part of student learning, retention, and meaning-making.”

About the University of Houston-Downtown

The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) is the second-largest university in Houston and has served the educational needs of the nation’s fourth-largest city since 1974. As one of four distinct public universities in the University of Houston System, UHD is a comprehensive, four-year university led by President Loren J. Blanchard. Annually, UHD educates approximately 14,000 students, boasts more than 66,000 alumni, and offers 45 bachelor’s degrees, 12 master’s degrees, and 19 online programs within four colleges: Marilyn Davies College of Business, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Public Service, and College of Sciences and Technology. UHD has one of the lowest tuition rates in Texas.

U.S. News and World Report ranked UHD among the nation’s Best Online Bachelor’s Programs for Applied Administration and Best Online Master’s Programs in Criminal Justice, as well as a Top Performer in Social Mobility. The Wall Street Journal/College Pulse ranked UHD one of the best colleges in the U.S. for its 2024 rankings, with notable distinctions: No. 1 for diversity (tied) and No. 3 for student experience. The University is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a Minority-Serving Institution, and a Military Friendly School. For more information on the University of Houston-Downtown, visit uhd.edu.