Future Montgomery workforce experiments with science, medicine


Abigail Gunawan, far left, Bryan Ntumsi and Donatella Aho, all 12, watch a scientist freeze a flower at Frontiers in Science and Medicine Day, held at the Universities of Shady Grove in Rockville. (Dan Gross/The Gazette)
November 7, 2012

Learning CPR was the best part of Anne Selby’s day on Oct. 26. For her classmate Daniel Aguilar, it was learning how to operate robotic limbs.

Anne said when she grows up, she wants to be a nurse or a teacher. Daniel said he wants to be a mechanic.

The seventh-graders at Forest Oak Middle School viewed Frontiers in Science and Medicine Day, which took place at the Universities at Shady Grove in Rockville, as an exciting learning experience outside the classroom.

The adults who made it happen see it as much more.

The event — hosted each year by either USG, a campus community — or Johns Hopkins University, is about building a workforce and making sure children don’t think that people who work in the biosciences are “crazy scientists,” said Stephen L. Hoffman, founder and chief executive of Rockville-based Sanaria, a company that develops malaria vaccines and participated in the event.

Earlier last month, scientists went to Forest Oak and Neelsville middle schools in Gaithersburg and Germantown to lead experiments in science classrooms. On Oct. 26, the students toured local bioscience and medicine companies, such as Sanaria, where they learned about the work and research taking place, and visited the Universities at Shady Grove, where scientists and researchers from the University System of Maryland, Montgomery College, Johns Hopkins and other organizations set up interactive booths.

“I think the education is one half of it,” Hoffman said. “I think the other half is just getting kids interested in the field.”

And the field is growing. In 2009, there were 9,200 private-sector life sciences jobs in Montgomery County, according to a county economic development report. Now, there are an estimated 13,000 life sciences jobs and 350 life sciences companies, said Steve Silverman, the county’s director of economic development.

Just as Northern Virginia builds off having the Department of Defense nearby, Montgomery County builds off the Food and Drug Administration and National Institutes of Health, fostering research and development grants, Silverman said.

The county is more focused now than ever before on connecting the opportunities in life sciences careers to the education the county offers, he said.

“Simply put, if you are a Montgomery County high school student and you are interested in life sciences, you go to school within Montgomery County, then go to work for one of our biotech companies, rather than going to New Jersey or somewhere like that,” Silverman said.

It is crucial to let students experiment early on to develop their interests in science, technology, engineering and math — known as STEM subjects — said Jennifer Colvin, senior director at MdBio Foundation, a group focused on bioscience advocacy and education that participated in the event.

“If we provide them an exciting experience, we know they are going to take more rigorous courses in their next step,” Colvin said.

It is the fourth year that the Universities at Shady Grove and Johns Hopkins University have hosted the event aiming to energize Montgomery students about careers in science, medicine and research, said Barbara Crews, a spokeswoman for Johns Hopkins. Two schools are chosen by county administrators to participate each year.

The event costs about $12,000 but is free for students and school system. It is sponsored by the Universities at Shady Grove, Johns Hopkins, Montgomery College, Shady Grove Adventist Hospital, MedImmune, Human Genome Sciences and other companies.

At Sanaria, students saw the room in which employees dissect mosquitoes and learned about the liquid nitrogen that keeps the company’s vaccines cold.

Johns Hopkins engineers set up the booth with the robotic limbs, which can be used to defuse bombs. At other booths, students made play putty and powered light bulbs by riding a bike.

Anne’s father, Eric Selby, who chaperoned at the event, said Anne couldn’t wait for the day.

He said the students will come away with knowledge about the real world they wouldn’t have acquired in their school building.

“For them, when they are in school, there is an expectation of focusing on books,” Selby said. “Here, they learn, and they probably come away with more.”

Everything the students learned was tied to curriculum, said Amy Gensemer, supervisor of science, technology and engineering for Montgomery County schools. The event gave them a chance to see it put to use.

“They get to see the problems of real scientists and see what real scientists are learning . . . locally,” she said.

Colvin, from MdBio Foundation, said there is a need for STEM workers today, but there will be an exponential increase in the future — especially in Montgomery County, where bioscience is strongly supported.

That is why it is important to educate students in the county and state, she said.

“We have tons of homegrown talent right here,” she said.

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