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Biotechnology outreach introduces students to the future of science

  • February 1, 2010

Biotechnology dominates science headlines, playing a big part in news about genetically modified organisms, cancer research and the mapping of the human genome. And in the San Francisco Bay Area, the industry is still booming, thanks to a concentration of companies that call the area home. But biotech hasn't played a major role in science education; it may be covered in the textbooks, but hands-on opportunities are rare, which makes it harder to prepare students for the science careers of tomorrow.

Although Cal State East Bay recently began a university-wide push to reinvent science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, it's familiar territory for Professor David Stronck. What began with a grant from the National Science Foundation has grown to a multi-year partnership with Genetech Inc. Since 1997, Stronck, a faculty member in the teacher education program at CSUEB's College of Education and Allied Studies, has received more than $1 million in funding from the Bay Area biotech powerhouse to improve and expand science education in regional schools.

The money supports a training program for high school teachers, which trains them in preparing and teaching biotechnology-related labs to share with their students. This includes a workshop for teachers, curriculum guidance and traveling lab kits, with enough materials for a classroom-wide experiment.

"Biotechnology advances are overrunning what we understand about biology," Stronck said. "Plus it's a growing industry, with a wide variety of employees." In January, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that California companies account for almost half of the nation's venture capital spending in biotech. Many of those careers will require exposure to exactly the type of concepts Stronck, a former high-school science teacher himself, has helped promote in schools. 

To introduce students to complex science concepts, Stronck explained, teachers often begin by explaining science in the news. These days, that's increasingly biotech related.

"Talking about it is easy," he said. "Biotechnology is everywhere. Teachers take what should be this exciting aspect of where biology is going, but to make it real, they need these experiments and experiences."

Participating in the labs make it possible for students to see basic biotechnology in action. One common experiment moves a bioluminescent gene from one organism to another, which has the benefit of being both hands-on and almost instantly noticeable.

But biotech can be a challenge to teach because of the expense and variety of those lab materials. "It gets into equipment that high schools typically cannot afford and do not have," Stronck said. Each of the five kits he oversees is worth approximately $50,000, and each kit moves between geographic clusters of high schools on a tight schedule. The materials, such as chemical agents and organisms, must be replenished periodically, and the equipment must be properly cared for and stored. CSUEB Biology Professor Chris Bayesdorfer has helped set up and stock the biotech lab kits and provides storage for some of the delicate lab materials. 

Through the program Stronck developed, teachers in Alameda and Contra Costa counties can attend a five day workshop that covers both the practical lab science and effective teaching methods. Stronck still oversees the project, but the day to day coordination is handled by Shary Rosenbaum, another former full time high school science teacher. Rosenbaum is now the program manager for the East Bay Biotechnology Education Program (EBBEP), and helps write the yearly grant requests, handles the program administration and leads the teacher training. 

"Lab practices in biotech are much different from the 'sloppy' experiments you do in biology," said Rosenbaum. "There are basic lab techniques that need to be taught first that aren't intuitive. But if you don't set it up right, the kids won't get results."

Rosenbaum was one of the first teachers in the East Bay to take advantage of Stronck's biotech outreach program, even though she said at the time "I didn't even know what biotech meant." That experience has helped her relate to the challenges teachers will face and given her insight into best practices in teaching. She explained that the goal of the training is to make the teachers confident that they can teach the labs independently, even though she said she is always available, "hovering by e-mail."

At least 150 teachers in the two counties have been through the training, and more than 5,000 students at 60 high schools have been exposed to biotech basics in the past decade. According to Rosenbaum, almost 80 percent of the teachers who've been through the training are still teaching biotech with the help of the kits. And there are similar Genentech-funded projects in schools in other parts of the Bay Area, Stronck added. He represents the EBBEP on the Board of Directors of the Bay Area Biotechnology Education Consortium, Inc., a regional network of science education organizations in the East Bay, Marin County, San Francisco, San Mateo County, and the South Bay.

CSUEB's STEM education plan calls for educating a science-ready workforce, preparing the next generation of STEM teachers, and partnering with regional businesses and K-12 schools to build a pipeline of students engaged in STEM disciplines. Stronck's relationship with regional partners like Genentech, schools and other education groups, as well as with his work in the teacher education program, exemplifies the type of outreach and collaboration Cal State East Bay will be known for and the dedication to sharing a passion for science and discovery.

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