Overcoming Obstacles to Bring Biotech Education to a New Region
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In Kentucky, the Amgen Biotech Experience (ABE) is just getting started, with the 2021–22 school year the first that some select area schools are participating. At North Bullitt High School outside Louisville, science teachers Tim Dobson and Richard Reynolds are reaching more than 200 students this school year with ABE. And they are already seeing some success in engaging their students in new ways.

“It was a slow start trying to get my students to invest themselves and engage with a very technical topic that they initially struggled to comprehend,” Dobson explains. “As we progressed through the initial labs, they became more interested and knowledgeable about micropipettes, gel electrophoresis units, plasmids, and restriction enzymes. They were anxious to see their results with each lab and excited when their results turned out as expected. Admittedly, that wasn’t as often as we would have liked but even the unexpected results gave us an opportunity to discuss possible explanations for the outcomes that we had.”

ABE spoke with Dobson about how he got started with ABE Kentucky at the first area high school to participate, his early interest in science, and his drive to teach biotechnology.

First, how have you been doing with the pandemic and all the changes in the schools?

The current school year has been better than the previous year. Last year, we had a combination of virtual classes, hybrid classes and in-person classes with social distancing and masking. It was very stressful for everyone. While masks are still required this year, the social distancing recommendation is to the extent we are able. It’s needless to say but I think everyone is ready to get back to some semblance of normalcy.

How did you first become involved with the ABE program?

Late last school year, teachers received an email from Dr. Joanne Dobbins of Bellarmine University. In her email, she presented the ABE program and requested that interested teachers register for the training to be held during the summer. At first, I didn’t respond because we frequently receive announcements about various professional learning opportunities, and I didn’t really think much about it. A couple of weeks later, my colleagues in the science department received an email from our principal. Dr. Dobbins had contacted him, asking him to reach out to his science teachers to remind us of the ABE program and that there were still openings. The ABE training was to be held in June. I decided to register for it because of the 12 hours of professional learning credit and I had thought that I would learn some activities that I could use with my students. I honestly had no idea what I was about to get myself into.

How has it been going with the kits so far?

The kits have been amazing! They included equipment that we, as a school, would never be able to purchase. What I found even more amazing was the preparation that went into putting them together. Reagents had been allotted and enough equipment was included to accommodate my largest class. It was truly a team effort with the ABE team at Bellarmine. 

What are your goals in implementing ABE for your students?

My goal is pretty simple. I wanted to expose my students to actual laboratory equipment and techniques used by biotechnicians in real-world applications. I wanted to give students lab experiences that would stay with them and potentially influence them to pursue careers in the biotechnology industry.

What challenges have you encountered so far?

Probably my biggest challenge has been the lack of time between classes when we were doing the lab activities. Logistically, only having 5 minutes between one class finishing and the next class starting made it difficult to get lab stations cleaned, organized, and restocked. Some classes started a little later, which made it difficult to complete the lab before class was over.

Another challenge that I had was in the timing of the thawing of some of the reagents and to try to keep them cold enough throughout the day and not allow them to get too warm for too long. Frankly, the probable mistakes that I made most likely contributed to some of the “unexpected results” that my students had.

One last but significant challenge for me was having to learn more about the highly technical world of biotechnology than I had ever known before so I could then teach it to my students.

How did you first become interested in science, and what was your early/high school science education like?

I have always loved nature. As a child, I would walk in the woods, turn over rotten logs, and poke at their soft underside with a stick to see what was there. I played in creeks, learned about insects and plants, caught snakes, and just learned random facts about nature in general.

In high school, my biology education was less about cell processes and more about organisms, which is where my passion truly lies. Of course, we did learn about cells, organelles, cell transport, genetics, transcription/translation, etc., but not the depth in which the standards require us to teach it today. My chosen area of interest in biology is ecology, which seems to be given less importance in the curriculum standards than cellular processes.

Why is biotech important to you?

Frankly, I really never had a great interest in biotechnology … until now. With my involvement with ABE Kentucky, I have had to learn a lot more about biotechnology, its goals, methods, and practical applications. Because of this, I find it more interesting than ever before. I also recognize that I benefit from biotech research because of the medication I take.

Anything else you'd like to add that I haven't asked you about?

It was an honor for me that I have a part in making North Bullitt High School the first school in Kentucky to engage in the ABE program. I would just like to thank everyone on the ABE team at Bellarmine University for all of their hard work, encouragement, and faith in me, and for being my safety net.

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