Bringing students into biotech

College lab immerses high schoolers in science

(With the 2013-14 school year under way, Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR’s outreach and education program for students in grades 6-12 will provide hands-on experiences in labs and out in the fields for hundreds of Ocean State students.)

In a departure from the daily classroom routine, a group of 12 Coventry High School students and their science teacher traveled to the Community College of Rhode Island last spring for a “Biotechnology Crash Course.”

Hosted by Assistant Professor Scott Warila, the students of Coventry teacher Julie Pankowicz descended on the biology lab and quickly set to work, practicing the same techniques and concepts used in the biotech industry.

“High school kids learn best when they’re engaged in the material and when they can find meaningful applications of their knowledge,” Pankowicz said. “By working in the biotech lab at CCRI, my students were exposed to the rigorous pace and techniques that a career in a biotech facility or any lab environment can offer them.”

Scott Warila, assistant professor in the CCRI Biology Department, hosts a biotech lab for Coventry High School science students.

Pankowicz added that exposure to such a meaningful educational experience would not happen without funding from Rhode Island NSF Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research.

“Teaching biological sciences at a public high school presents many challenges, namely, providing materials, equipment and consumables needed to perform many of the procedures and experiments that are taught in the high school biotech curriculum,” she said.

Supported by the National Science Foundation, EPSCoR is directed at states that have historically received lesser amounts of federal research and development funding.

In Rhode Island, nine institutions of higher education partner in groundbreaking research and the development of academic talent in the science and technology fields. The goal is to increase competitiveness in research and development, build a more capable workforce, and fuel economic growth in the Ocean State.

Hands-on science

The CCRI experience is part of Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR’s support to schools that have developed biotechnology programs and continue to add to their curriculum. The lab offers an opportunity to interact with students and educators, gauge their comfort level in the lab setting and shore up the effort through several avenues.

Tim Pelletier, Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR education and outreach coordinator, organized the event, including the lab time and lunch on the CCRI campus.

Students follow the detailed steps of a lab experiment that offers a taste of what it is like to work in the biotech industry.

“We provide teacher development and training, answer questions about curriculum and techniques and offer support with supplies and equipment,” Pelletier explained.

Later, reflecting on the program, Warila said: “Without the support of EPSCoR, this experience would not have come together, so it is important that these programs continue to receive funding to encourage students to consider careers in the bioscience industry.”

Hands gloved and equipment before them, the students carried out the lab step by step, guided by Warila, who lightened the experience with a natural ease. At one point, he instructed the group to place their samples in a deep freeze, but no one moved.

“It’s okay,” he said. “This is college. You can get up. You’re free to move.”

Later, Warila noted that the biotech labs offer students the chance to work with equipment and concepts they normally would not experience in a high school setting.

“Most students don’t realize that this type of stuff is out there, and therefore don’t have an opportunity to develop an interest in it,” he said. “I think it is important they get exposure to various opportunities while in high school so when they do get to college, they can choose a program of study based on firsthand knowledge.”

Opening doors of opportunity

The college lab setting also provides an idea of what the high schoolers will learn in college, particularly in a biotech program. And, the skills they are exposed to are the same they will be expected to use on a daily basis in the industry.

During the lab, Warila walked around and offered to inspect the lab journals students had been keeping in Pankowicz’s class.

He told the students that in addition to the technical skills introduced, they also needed to develop solid writing and documentation habits. No messy journals, he warned.  Being aware of safety measures and strong interpersonal skills also mattered, he said.

For Pankowicz’s students, the experience of handling, measuring and calibrating the varied pieces of lab equipment and materials in a real, college lab environment carried a lasting impression.

“By providing the experience of working in the CCRI Bio-Tech lab, EPSCoR has given my high school students the ability to utilize many of the materials, equipment and lab techniques that they only learn about in class, and therefore develop concrete understanding of such lab techniques,” Pankowicz said.

She also said that the students were excited to work with Pelletier and Warila, both of whom shared their enthusiasm and passion for their work: “It was one of the most meaningful experiences they’ve had in high school.”

Warila said he, too, gained from the morning’s event.

“It helps to remind me that most college students aren’t far removed from high school themselves, and they still need the engagement and support to be successful at this level,” he said. “Even the non-traditional students need to know you want them do well in the class and are there for them.”

Story and photos by Amy Dunkle