Biotech buzz builds up in high schools

September 29, 2005

By hammersmith

Twenty-seven miles from the Translational Genomics Research Institute and the future medical school campus in downtown Phoenix sits a recently gutted auto shop. Where car parts used to lie scattered around, the smell of fresh paint wafts through the air and thousands of dollars worth of biotechnology equipment fill brand new cabinets.

This old auto shop is now the new home of Mesa High School’s Biotechnology Academy, the state’s first intensive high school biotech program. Xan Simonson, a teacher who left her job at a junior high school four years ago to begin teaching biotechnology at the high school level, started the academy.

“I wanted to teach biotech to my honors science class, and then I saw there was a need in the high schools, so I moved up.”

At Mesa High this year there are more than 100 students enrolled in introductory biotechnology, and there are 28 students in the academy. Based on this success, Simonson’s biotech program could be Arizona’s most prominent model, but it is not the only one.

A few miles south, on the outskirts of Chandler, Hamilton High School has raised $100,000 to fund its biotechnology program. In the West Valley, 29 students are conducting biotechnology experiments in Peoria High School’s whitewashed, state-of-the-art research facility. When the class first began in 2003, only 11 students enrolled in the course. Further south in Tucson, former pharmacologist Andrew Lettes is trying to secure more donations to supplement his grant from the Nike Foundation, used to fund Pueblo High School’s first yearlong biotechnology course.

Collaboration to improve education is in its infancy, but momentum is building. The Arizona Department of Education recently revised its agriculture education curriculum to include biotechnology. The governor’s P-20 Council met for the first time in August to discuss a number of strategies, including ways to improve math and science education. In a couple of weeks, science teachers from across the state will meet at a conference to discuss how to address the needs of the bioscience workforce.

Because these collaborative ventures are still relatively new, any work that has been done to build up a bioscience workforce are grassroots-based, driven by individual teachers and administrators with a vision and a desire to prepare their students to compete successfully in a knowledge-driven economy.

“Biotech is part of the economic development plan of the Valley and the region,” said Tony Maldonado, director of career and technical education for Mesa Unified School District. “We’re trying to create a workforce that will attract companies that will employ these kids and boost our economic health and welfare.”

Contained within their respective campuses, isolated by distance and district lines, these programs are easy to overlook. But it is upon these curricula and these students that the state will depend to grow its biosciences economy.

According to Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap, programs that educate students and prepare them to join the bioscience workforce are essential to the success of Arizona’s growing bioscience economy. That includes increased preparation in math and science, two areas in which Arizona has traditionally lagged behind.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress State Science Report 2000 found that the percentage of Arizona eighth graders performing at proficiency level was at 24 percent, compared to 30 percent nationwide.

“Interviews with postsecondary faculty and administration suggest that not only are students unprepared to handle college-level scientific courses, but high school teachers are not trained to instruct students in the fundamentals of molecular biology and other key preparatory biology-related courses,” reported the Battelle Bioscience Workforce Needs Assessment.

Part of the answer to these deficiencies, teachers say, is to develop biotech programs that encourage students to inquire, and thereby discover the fun of learning science. Because most biotechnology programs have developed only in the last few years, it is too soon to tell if the programs themselves can boost Arizona students’ science scores. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that they are at least having the right effect.

“The kids are so excited, you would not believe it,” said Shelly Betchner, Hamilton High School’s biotech teacher. “They’re like sponges, saying ‘give me more.'”

Where is this enthusiasm coming from? Almost every teacher interviewed cited the influence of television programs, especially “CSI,” on their students’ interests in biotechnology.

“Biotech is presented in such a positive way on TV, and the students are pre-adapted to it, more adapted to it than they are to fruit flies,” said Lettes. “Students are ready to be wowed, ready to participate.”

Goodbye popsicle-stick DNA models, hello vortexers

Last year, even before Lettes started his yearlong biotechnology course, he began engaging students with the possibilities of high-level technology applications. After the tsunami struck Southeast Asia, killing more than 250,000 people, Lettes borrowed resources from the University of Arizona’s BIOTECH project so that his students could do a simulation in which they identified the bodies of tsunami victims using DNA fingerprinting.

This year Lettes is turning projects like DNA fingerprinting into an everyday curricular affair for his 25 students.

“In this class we get to use the real instruments,” he said. “In the past we just used scissors and tape, today students were using vortexers [mixers for test tubes],” said Lettes.

Lettes’ class is an example of how the days of students studying DNA by putting together popsicle stick models are disappearing and of how more advanced research at the high-school level is taking its place.

Students now play with expensive, high-level equipment such as autoclaves and electrophoresis chambers (devices that run electricity through DNA gels). Peoria High began its program with basic tissue culturing of Venus’ flytraps. Students take what they learn in the lab and apply it to their agricultural education classes, where they work in the school’s greenhouse, hydroponic, aquaculture, and turf-grass system.

This year Mesa High academy students will mass-produce poinsettias through tissue culturing. A nursery has already offered to buy the plants–a financial venture that proves to students that knowing and doing science can pay off.

“Here, students can even earn a little money,” Simonson said.

The importance of scientific inquiry as the center of classroom activity has received increased attention over the past few years. One year ago the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) adopted a position statement on scientific inquiry to stress the importance of building a classroom curriculum around it, saying in their position paper that, “the use of scientific inquiry will help ensure that students develop a deep understanding of science.”

When asked what she loved most about science, Mesa High senior Natasha Boettcher’s answer seemed to underscore the NSTA’s position on the importance of inquiry.

“I like science because once you think you know it all, there’s always something else to be discovered,” said Boettcher. “And it’s exciting to find something new.”

Ken Costenson, Mesa Unified School District’s science specialist, contrasted the new approach with that used by most science curricula in the past, which focused on teaching content and then doing a lab to reinforce the content.

“Here, we do the inquiry first,” he said.

In Mesa’s biotech programs, students’ first project of the year is to make cheese with different enzymes.

In-class inquiries mean that students are exposed to methods and equipment similar to those they will have in the working world, a goal of the biotech programs. For that reason, Fred Deprez, principal of Hamilton High School, and Tony Maldonado both refer to biotech as an example of the “new vocational education.”

The new vocational education

Mesa’s decision to transform its old auto shop into a biotech lab is symbolic of Arizona’s push–and of the schools’ decision to follow the trend by offering job-training programs that fit into a knowledge-based economy.

“We no longer train only for lower end jobs,” Maldonado said. “We’re moving all our programs (towards knowledge- and information-based job training). And this is just the beginning; it is not the capstone.”

According to the Battelle Workforce Needs Assessment, in the next few years new bioscience-related hires will increase by at least 20 percent of current employment levels with research jobs increasing by about 23 percent and lab technician positions increasing by about 32 percent.

Those jobs require more than a high school diploma, and it is therefore up to high school teachers to get students to graduate and go on to college to pursue a biotech career. That is quite a responsibility, considering that Arizona has one of the worst high-school graduation rates in the country, according to the Governor’s Task Force on Higher Education (December 2000).

When Simonson developed the Mesa High biotech academy, she decided to target specifically the average C student, who might otherwise not go on to college. “We’re motivating the undermotivated and challenging the underchallenged,” Maldonado said.

They have the stories to prove it.

Last year one Mesa High student who did not plan to enroll in a community college or a university decided to attend Arizona State University and pursue a career in biotech after receiving a full scholarship. Another student almost dropped out of school after she had her baby. But then her fellow biotech students visited her at home and convinced her to graduate. Earlier this year Simonson’s inbox was full of emails from students saying how happy they were to be in college, how they did not think it could actually happen.

“That’s what charges my batteries,” she said.

In order to improve the pipeline to higher education, many of the teachers and administrators involved in establishing biotech programs said they also hope to establish ties with community colleges and universities. Mesa has a working partnership with ASU Polytechnic campus and Mesa Community College. Hamilton is exploring the possibility of students receiving dual enrollment credit.

“There’s definitely a need in the workforce,” Betchner said. “With this program, you have students who can graduate with skills to start working or can go to college with a good foundation.”

There are multiple positions that need to be filled in today’s bioscience workforce, including the researchers who generate ideas and create innovations, and the technicians that assist them. At Hamilton High and Peoria, students can prepare for both.

“Students who take Peoria’s biotech class are required to design, conduct, and present a research project of their own choosing,” said James Kaltenbach, director of agricultural education at Peoria.

Along with Betchner, Teresa Clark, who was the 2002 Intel Innovator of the Year, plays an important role at Hamilton in building a workforce for Arizona that is excited to engage in scientific inquiry. Clark and Debbie Nipar run a high-level-research class where students work with mentors to develop innovative projects.

“This environment makes me want to work and discover new things and study,” said sophomore Nancy Leo, a student in the class.

In 2003, three students discovered how to reduce the cost of biodiesel by $1 per gallon. Their project won $160,000 in science-fair prizes, including the Movement for Leisure in Science and Technology 2003 Expo Science International Grand Prize Award.

“It’s amazing what high school kids can do given the opportunities,” said Hamilton principle Fred Deprez.

Last year one of Clark’s seniors, who won second prize at the Intel International Science and Engineering fair for her project that investigated therapies for Ecstasy abusers, decided to stay in-state and continue her research at ASU.

“It is these kinds of students that Arizona needs to stay in-state in order to build its knowledge economy,” Clark said.

Clark’s class has 26 students this year, including a Native American student, who won the middle school Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. He commutes from Sacaton on the Gila River Pima-Maricopa Reservation just to continue his research in Clark’s class.

Education Economics

Clark’s research class is not only an example of how students are engaging in high-level research that may someday inspire them to achieve a scientific breakthrough, it is also an example of how schools can successfully leverage support for their programs.

Deprez began to secure industry support for Hamilton’s science department as soon as the school opened, which happened to be the same time Intel opened a plant in Chandler. Deprez met with Intel on a regular basis trying to develop a relationship.

“They identified the things they felt were important, and we shared our needs,” recalled Deprez.

As a result, Hamilton landed volunteer support and $25,000 per year in funding for the Hamilton Invitational Science Fair, as well as other science education programs.

“What’s unique here is that we’ve been able to give back to Intel,” Deprez said. “With our program, they get a return. One of the problems with business school partnerships is that it’s one way. Schools want support, but they don’t give anything back. Not here.”

As examples of how Hamilton generated a return on the company’s investment, Deprez pointed to the success of students in the Intel science fair, the students inspired to continue their research in Arizona, and the students prepared to take on an Intel internship.

It is rare to find an educator who discusses a school’s relationship with industry in terms of investments and returns on investments. But for Deprez, who also independently raised $100,000 for the school’s biotech lab, it seems to be the strategy that works.

Clark, who has her students apply for grants, contact possible mentors, and seek out additional donations, has also leveraged considerable support. This year about seven of her students work with ASU professors. One has a mentor at Motorola, and two or three of her students have mentors at TGen. One senior is working with his ASU mentor to publish his research.

Out in Mesa, Biorad Laboratories, a multinational manufacturer and distributor of life-science research products and clinical diagnostics, donated Mesa High’s lab equipment and in return will feature Simonson and her students on the cover of its next catalogue. Simonson also visited a research lab when planning the program and generated strategies such as notebook-keeping in order to provide her students with as much of a real-world experience as possible.

In Tucson, Lettes receives little financial support from the district or the school for his biotech class. On his own time, the 2002 Intel Innovator of the Year finalist applied for a grant from the Nike Foundation that garnered $2,500 for equipment. And, in a validation of the saying that opportunity is where you find it, a conversation at a football game helped him land some donations from Selectide, a subsidiary of Aventis Pharmaceuticals.

Lettes also relies on the University of Arizona’s BIOTECH project, which provides equipment and project ideas to teachers who want to bring biotechnology into their classroom. In fact, he said that the BIOTECH project is what motivated him to start teaching a biotechnology course.

Nadja Anderson, the director of BIOTECH, said that in the past five years 150 teachers and 27,000 students have used the project’s resources.

In Phoenix, ASU has a similar program called BIOREACH, which also works to get resources into the classroom, and researchers at TGen are trying to do their part to get high school students engaged in the scientific process.

Dietrich Stephan, director of the TGen Neurogenomics Division, said that part of TGen’s mission is to give back to the community. A number of high school students, including Flinn Scholar Amy Alabaster, work in his lab, and he even helps his students publish before they even get to college.

Stephan says that he wants to do even more to help Arizona high school students become the next generation of elite scientists.

“I’m just trying to find the most effective way to do it,” he said.

Unfinished Business

Leveraging support is crucial for biotech programs. Unfortunately, it is also incredibly difficult. According to the Battelle Bioscience Workforce Needs Assessment, it is difficult in Arizona to engage industry in K-12 programs. That, the report stated, is a “barrier to growth.”

While some teachers and administrators have had success securing resources and financial support, the system is still far from fully operational.

“There’s much more to be done,” Costenson said.%pagebreak%

What funding there is has many—and growing—demands.

Current programs are looking for more resources to develop and expand: Betchner wants a Biotech II course for Hamilton; Peoria wants another section of its biotech course; and. Simonson wants to open to expand her two year biotech academy into a four-year academy.

Even as current needs expand, future demands continue to crop up, as an increasing number of biotech programs are scheduled to come online over the next few years. The most ambitious of them all is the Phoenix Union’s biosciences high school, set to open in August with its first class of 100 students. The downtown school will feature six science labs and nine classrooms. Jean Anderson and DeeDee Falls, project coordinators, said that they will not only need mentoring relationships for their students, but also additional funding. They said the $4 million they have for the project is not enough to cover all the construction costs.

“We have a long wish list,” Anderson said. “We need community support. We need doors to open for us with ideas, opportunities, and funds.”

On Feb. 2, 2005 the New York Times cited that one of the keys to Arizona’s early success in building a bioscience economy has been the extensive collaboration. When it comes to building a future workforce, teachers say, more collaboration and discussion needs to involve educators.

Deprez said he would like long-term collaboration between his school and an industry sponsor to ensure the success of his biotech program. Costenson points out that, like the rest of Arizona, schools are traveling at light speed in the area of biotech, and they could use more opportunities to discuss what else is going on, and what more could be done.

“When you travel at warp speed, you can’t really see what’s going on around you.”

Ideas for how best to accomplish such partnerships range from the formal to the informal. Nicholas Krump, a former science teacher who helped to write the bioscience curriculum for Washington, D.C., schools, said there ought to be an interface that brings industry and education to the same table.

Lettes, on the other hand, sees the solution to landing more support in something as simple as a conversation. Coming from someone who got pharmaceutical money from a football game conversation, the suggestion carries some weight.

“I really would like to see some of the more interested parties come to us and say, ‘what can we do to help you?'” he said. “Just think of the smiles they can get from a teacher with a simple question: what can we do to help you? And I’ll tell you.”