Where do drugs go?

Zoë Wagner, Bentley University, Natural & Applied Sciences
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This classroom discussion centered around the biological/chemical mechanisms by which drugs leave the body and where the drugs go from there. We discussed renal clearance via urine, then transitioned into a discussion of where drugs go in wastewater, efficacy of wastewater removal of pharmaceuticals, and finished with a discussion of the personal/societal/scientific relevance of pharmaceuticals in waste and drinking water.

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Learning Goals

The major goals of the activity were to encourage students to consider current data and data limitations regarding pharmaceutical contamination of waste and drinking water, as well as the challenges that these limitations pose to developing workable solutions. Students were required to do significant data analysis, as well as develop oral presentation and persuasive arguments.

Context for Use

This course was an honors-level course for non-majors that covers the basics of pharmaceutical discovery, development, and biological activity. The course enrolled 17 students. The discussion required a fairly in-depth knowledge of pharmaceutical absorption, distribution, metabolism, and excretion, as well as an understanding of plasma concentration vs time curves and minimum effective concentrations. It would be fairly difficult to adapt this to a course that had not spoken in depth about pharmaceutics and pharmacology.

Description and Teaching Materials

This activity started by introducing the concept of renal clearance of pharmaceuticals and the impact of renal impairment, which was the logical continuation from discussions the previous week. We then moved into a discussion of wastewater treatment. The students then did a think-pair-share looking at some data pharmaceutical removal from wastewater. They were asked to think about 1) what do the data show? Are there trends in the data? Are there any outliers? What might be a mechanism behind the outlier data? We then talked about how pharmaceuticals move into drinking water. The final discussion centered around the question of 'should we be worried about pharmaceutical contamination of drinking water?' The students were encouraged to think about this question from a personal, societal, and scientific perspective. Students discussed in small groups and then we came back together as a class for broader conversation. The facilitated conversation then went into nuances such as what data would we need to be convinced one way or another? What are barriers to gathering these data? How might this problem impact certain communities disproportionately?

Slides_WhereDoDrugsGo (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 4MB Jun10 22)

Teaching Notes and Tips

I found that playing devil's advocate to the points of the students worked well to increase interest and stimulate more conversation.


The assessment of the discussion broadly centered around 1) participation (did the student comment) 2) ability of student to connect previous content to discussion topics 3) persuasiveness 4) scientific accuracy

References and Resources