Thirteen years after Austin Community College's Biotechnology Department used an ATE grant to adapt its introductory biotechnology course as professional development for high school teachers, the course is firmly embedded in Texas' curriculum for students as well as teachers.
Austin Community College's (ACC) Introduction to Biotechnology was adopted four years ago as the standard curriculum for Texas high schools to use for a year-long elective that counts toward the state's four-year science requirement for graduation.
More recently the Texas Education Agency (TEA) awarded ACC's Biotechnology Department a grant to develop an online biotechnology certification program for high school teachers. Linnea Fletcher, chair of the Biotechnology Department at Austin Community College, used the grant to hire four biotechnology teachers who participated years ago in her ATE-supported faculty development program to create the podcasts, videos, and iBook for the online certification program.
Fletcher is thrilled that the professional development initiative started with ATE support has been sustained in ways that she did not anticipate in 2000. "It's reaching a second generation of teachers," she pointed out.
Project Launches First Generation of Biotech Teachers in Texas
One of those leading the second-generation effort is Jennifer Keelen Lazare. The iBook developer for the certification course, Lazare attended the ATE-supported professional development program as a pre-service teacher when she was enrolled in the University of Texas at Austin's UTeach program. A flyer advertising the free biotech program and its stipend caught her attention.
"I didn't really know much about biotech. My undergrad [degree] was in microbiology and my master's I was trying to get was in molecular biology. So I kind of knew the foundation of it, but the biotech is kind of the application of the molecular. So a lot of that stuff was new to me ... There were topics I'd never heard of before even though I was so well versed in molecular biology," Lazare explained.
Lazare was hired by Anderson High School in Austin when she completed her master's degree and teaching certificate. After a year of teaching a prescribed version of Integrated Physics and Chemistry, Lazare obtained district approval to teach a biotechnology course. ACC provided equipment for three years while the school district incrementally outfitted the high school lab. Lazare also became active—first as a mentee now as a mentor—in the ACC Biotechnology High School Teacher Network.
"Biotech was really fun to me," Lazare said, explaining her enthusiasm for teaching it. Anderson High School now offers eight sections of biotechnology. Although she does not teach all eight sections, Lazare said "100%" of Anderson High School's biotech course is based on what she and a colleague learned from the ACC professional development course.
"I still use everything because biotech is all foundational. We've advanced it as far as the knowledge and new ways to use it. But the foundational skills I learned are exactly the same," she said.
"Through my biotech program and my dual credit [biology for non-science majors] program I've kind of created the perfect classroom for everyone. I have AP [Advanced Placement] students that take biotech and I also have kids who've never taken a weighted science class in their life and they're all successful in here. And they all want to be here," Lazare said.
Project Nurtures Second Generation of Biotech Teachers
In the spring 2012, one of Lazare's most academically gifted biotechnology students, Ellen Lynch, returned to Anderson High School as a student teacher. (Lynch is on the left in the photo; Lazare is on the right.)
Lynch said she sought this placement because Lazare's instructional style was the most student-centered she had ever experienced. She was hired immediately after her 2012 graduation from the University of Texas Austin by the Spring Branch Independent School District near Houston to teach biology.
During their conversations at the UTeach conference this spring Lazare explained the steps for starting a biotech program. Lynch had wanted to start a biotech program at her high school immediately; Lazare advised her to wait until she got through her first year of teaching. "She a great resource," Lynch said of the woman who has been her teacher, mentor, and is now her long-distance colleague.
High School Biotech Course Raises Students' Interest in Science
Lynch hopes her biotech course will raise students' interest in biotechnology careers and inform them about the possibility of entering the field with an associate's degree. "I don't think our students are even aware of the opportunities in technical colleges," she said.
So far the statewide growth in high school biotech course enrollments have not generated enormous growth in biotech technician preparation programs. Fletcher attributes this to high schools placing students who are on four-year college paths in the Introduction to Biotechnology course. Teachers, however, have told her that the course sparks students' interest in science careers. "If a student ends up in science because of this course I'm totally happy about it," Fletcher said.
High School Biotech Course Prepares Students for Research Opportunities
Joseph Oleniczak is a biotechnology and chemistry instructor at the Liberal Arts and Science Academy, which sends 88% of its students to four-year colleges. He said that ACC's "techniques-focused" curriculum with examples based on real laboratory and industry work experiences helps solidify students' career plans.
"A lot of students have exposure to basic biology and then they take the course. And they had no idea really how broad the topic of biotechnology is and how many different kinds of career opportunities there are," he said.
In each of the four years since the urban magnet school adopted ACC's curriculum, five to 10 of his biotech students have attained positions working on research projects at the University of Texas at Austin.
"I don't think they would have sought out those experiences, or would have been prepared for them, or would have qualified for them had they not gotten the training through this program," he said.