Biotech Boot Camp at Northern Virginia Community College's Manassas Campus Gives Educators Hands-On Experience to Promote Science

By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 6, 2009

Adozen Virginia science teachers gave up one precious day of summer in late last month to attend a Biotech Boot Camp at Northern Virginia Community College's Manassas campus.

Clad in white lab coats and huddling over beakers and test tubes, they simulated a filtering technique, called column chromatography, which a technician might use to identify water pollutants.

"That looks really cool," said Gina Treat, who teaches oceanography, biology and earth sciences at Potomac, as a muddy brown liquid separated into distinct layers of blue, red and yellow. "It's good for the kids, because it's really clear."

The community college offered the boot camp free to teachers working in Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun county schools. Outreach coordinator Ia Gomez said it was a way to publicize and promote the college's new biotechnology program, which has offered a two-year associate's degree in applied science since 2008.

"The goal is to give students skills to get a job when they graduate," Gomez said.

Gomez said students who receive an associate's degree can expect to make $30,000 to $50,000 working as entry-level technicians in forensic crime or environmental science labs. "We want the teachers to learn to do these things so they can actually do them in the high schools," she said.

Teachers performed two other experiments using intimidating-sounding techniques. The techniques were couched in situations to which students could relate. For example, enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay was a way to track a hypothetical swine flu outbreak back to its source. DNA electrophoresis, or fingerprinting, was framed as a whodunit. To solve a "murder," teachers compared the DNA from the scene of the crime to DNA belonging to three suspects.

"We have this equipment sitting in a closet," Francesca Mast, who teaches at Annandale High School in Fairfax County, said of the specialized pipettes, trays and power supply needed for the electrophoresis lab. "Now I'll know how to use it."

Jeromy Gilman, an AP biology teacher at Langley High School in McLean, has taught DNA electrophoresis for years. Mast, who said she was planning to teach it for the first time next year as part of an IB biology class, asked Gilman for tips on preparing the lab materials. Learning from other educators is a key reason to attend workshops such as this one, teachers said.

"You get new ideas," Treat said. "It kind of re-energizes you."

Madeline Towle, who teaches at Mountain View Alternative Learning Center in Fairfax, said science experiments with a clear connection to real life careers are well suited to her students, many of whom have not been successful in traditional schools. Her colleague, Abraham Giorge, who teaches at Pimmit Hills Alternative High School in Falls Church, agreed.

"I like these activities because they are hands-on and they help introduce students to a college way of teaching," Giorge said.

The problem in schools with shrinking budgets is finding a low-budget way to adapt the lessons, teachers said.

"I'm not going to be able to get this equipment for myself," said Raegan Ray, who teaches at Beville Middle School in Woodbridge. "So this whole time I'm thinking, what other kinds of inexpensive materials can I use to teach the same concepts?"

Ray said she would teach filtration by using sand, pebbles, rocks and charcoal rather than chemicals, for example.

More funding might be on the way for teachers who are interested in using biotechnology experiments in their classrooms. Gomez said NVCC is applying for a grant from the National Science Foundation and wants to partner with teachers, who would receive equipment, training and a stipend for three years.

"I definitely want to be involved," said Joanna Weems, who teaches at Osbourn Park High School, home of Prince William County's Biotechnology Center for students who want to focus on health sciences and related fields. "There are always new things on the horizon, and I'm trying to stay ahead."

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