Plenty of ideas to boost biotech education. Now let’s focus on the ones that work

A report authored by Battelle shows that American students are focused enough on biotech and other sciences. But wWhat’s illuminating, though, is how much has been tried to increase interest in science, the evidence of what is going right, what’s worth scrapping and what’s worth paying for.

Updated: 4:36 p.m.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The biotech industry needs to give more science teachers a summer job.

High schools need classes called “Biotech R & D.”

And states need to make long-term financial commitments to ideas that truly boost bioscience brain power, instead of a working on scattered approaches that do some good some of the time.

Biotech trade groups on Monday released a national study on biotech education (pdf) that is at points a depressing status update and other times an optimistic road map to success. The report — by Battelle, the national trade group BIO and The Biotechnology Institute — reinforces what many already believe: that American students’ knowledge of science and, in particular, biotech has plateaued at mediocre.

Several states — including Ohio, Minnesota and Massachusetts — are the national success stories. The Buckeye state is above the national average for both ACT-tested students ready for college-level biology as well as eighth-grade life science scores. Also, Ohio’s state curriculum regularly mentions the importance of biotech and includes biology as a high-school graduation requirement.

But the report says even the best states are leaders of a gloomy pack. For example, essentially one in four of all ACT-tested students nationwide are ready for college science. In Ohio, the number is only up to one in three, according to the study. Also, at least one-third of the state’s science teachers don’t have a degree in their assigned fields.

And nationally biology seems to be the third favorite of the sciences behind physics and chemistry, the report stated. Students take advanced placement tests in greater numbers for the latter two subjects than for biology.

“Even states that think they’re doing  a good job, they’re not meeting a high standard,” said Mitch Horowitz, vice president and managing director for Battelle’s technology partnership practice. “We have to improve our performance.”

What’s illuminating, though, is how much has been tried to increase interest in science, the evidence of what is going right, what’s worth scrapping and what’s worth paying for.

For example, summer science camps are only reaching a small number of students and in some states most public school students don’t connect with outreach efforts from major research institutions, according to the report. Instead, out-of-school classes and internship programs reach a broader group of students, according to the report.

States can increase students’ interest in biotech by creating programs like Connecticut Career Choices, the study states. That program expands basic science, technology, engineering and math classes and includes a competition to develop a mock company from existing innovations, publish a white paper and take classes like Biotech R & D and Foundations of Health Science and Technology.

Mixing professional experience into teacher training is increasing and helpful, according to the report. In San Diego, the Life Sciences Summer Institute has partnered with industry to train teachers and provide free supplies, loan out equipment, and help implement lessons throughout the school year.

The study also praised, among other programs:

  • The biotech portion in Ohio TechPrep, which connects high school students to community colleges with degrees in biotech fields.
  • A program through BioConnect New Hampshire that trained a high school class to create DNA kits that were used in 20 other school.
  • Alaska BioPREP, a middle- and high-school-focused program that effectively mixes challenging  biomedical research while addressing issues unique to ethnic Alaskans. The program has increased the number of science majors from rural Alaska school, according to the report.
  • Georgia Bio, which offers a teaching training program, partnerships with community colleges and is helping launch biotech classes in high schools throughout the state.

Whether programs like this expand is up to the states and their willingness to fund similar efforts as well as gather data and track students performance in the sciences, according to the report. Many programs are funded by grants and, as a result, often come and go as grants begin and end, it stated.

“I would say it’s not just about new money it’s how to use your existing funds,” said Horowitz of Battelle. “It’s about what works and having a sense of priorities and how you spend your dollar. We’re not sure money alone is the answer. It’s about effectiveness of how you’re spending and what you’re getting for your money.

“It’s not about hard choices it’s about smart choices,” Horowitz said.

[Front page photo courtest of Flickr user radiantradon; photo above courtesy of Flickr user Sarah G…]