Starting Early: Bringing Biotech to High Schools

One of the hottest tech fields right now is biotechnology, especially around San Diego. The need for trained technicians is so great, in fact, that the biotechnology program at nearby Southwestern College (SWC) has begun reaching out to area high schools to bring more young people into the field.

We reached out to Nouna Bakhiet, head of SWC’s biotechnology program and an ATETV advisor, for more details — and for some tips for educators looking to do something similar.

How did the program get started?

The collaboration started when an SWC counselor began working with the principal at nearby Eastlake High School; it then expanded to include two other schools in the Sweetwater Union High School District. SWC collaborated with all three schools and the district superintendent when making its grant application for the program.

How does the program work?

One secret to the program’s success has been the close interaction between college and high school teachers. “The teachers complete a summer workshop to prepare for receiving the outreach in their classrooms,” explains Bakhiet. “SWC Biotechnology Program participants act as teaching assistants to the high school teachers during outreach. SWC college faculty supervise the outreach.”

As for designing the curriculum, Bakhiet says the trick is knowing the existing guidelines and working within them. “There are already in place high school course standards that are aligned with college requirements,” she explains. “We researched these high school standards requirements and designed the outreach activities accordingly. The rigor of the college program remains unchanged.”

And because the SWC biotechnology program has several different tracks, it has been able to accommodate students of varying levels without having to make major changes to its courses.

How is it funded?

SWC’s program is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Biotechnology Education and Training Sequence Investment (BETSI) Project. Additional funding to provide equipment to the high schools has come from federal Perkins grants, and from private philanthropy from the LIPP Foundation.

The program is also exploring other innovative funding models. “Starting in 2010, SWC will launch a not-for-profit, student-run business initiative to sustain the BETSI outreach model,” says Bakhiet.

While the NSF remains the single best source of funding for programs of this kind, Bakhiet also notes that special sources of funding are available for historically black institutions and for schools serving hispanic population. “Bio-Link is an excellent source for funding information.”

Has the program succeeded in attracting students to biotechnology?

Yes, and Bakhiet points to the student success stories on SWC’s Web site to prove it. Among them is Marina Watanabe, who has been featured previously on ATETV. Other SWC alums include April Weissmiller, now a graduate student at Stanford; Alberto Rodriguez, who collaborated on a paper published in the science journal Nature; and Amber Perry, who works for Cibus Global, a firm that engineers environmentally friendly crops strains.

What practical advice does Bakhiet have for starting one of these programs?

Start early. “Allocate about one year to research the needs of the region,” Bakhiet advises. She also suggests engaging an experienced grant writer when seeking funding for a collaboration, and to allow three to six months to complete a proposal.

Bakhiet also suggests educators look into serving on the committee of a grant-making institution before applying, so as to observe the process and see what works and what doesn’t.

Educators interested in biotechnology outreach to high schools, and in setting up internships for biotech graduates, should check out the BETSI program model online.

Thanks so much to Nouna Bakhiet for her help this week!

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One Response to “Starting Early: Bringing Biotech to High Schools”

  1. [...] Only two stories in this holiday week episode, but they’re good ones. First, we visit Southwestern College near San Diego to learn about an innovative program that is bringing biotechnology into high school science classrooms. Biotech is a booming field, so much so that Southwestern heard from companies in the industry that the supply of technicians wasn’t keeping up with demand. That’s why the college started reaching out to students at local high schools. We were so impressed with the results that we did a separate post about the program; you can read it here. [...]

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