The recently funded InnovATEBIO National Biotech Education Center at Austin Community College in Texas unites community college biotechnology educators from across the nation in dynamic collaborations that build on their existing technician preparation efforts and branches out in new ways.
“Collaborations are key so I try to make sure within the network we’re all working together,” said InnovATEBIO Principal Investigator Linnea Fletcher.
People from the eight partner institutions worked together for more than a year preparing the Advanced Technological Education (ATE) grant proposal that they submitted to the National Science Foundation in October 2018. The institutions partnering with Austin Community College are Bay Area Bioscience Education Community, Cold Spring Harbor DNA Learning Center, Madison College, Digital World Biology, Forsyth Technical Community College, Baltimore City College, and Finger Lakes Community College. Beyond this, Fletcher said, the new center partners with “of course, the Bio-Link community.”
To focus on various aspects of biotechnology the new national biotech education center, which was funded with a $7.5 million ATE grant awarded in October 2019 (Award #1901984 ), is organized into hubs that leverage the expertise of experienced ATE principal investigators as well as a few people and institutions that are new to the program.
“The hubs combine education, supply chain, and economic development into this model where all entities are supported. Every piece has an educational role,” Fletcher said.
For example, InnovATEBIO will provide students with hands-on biomanufacturing experiences with embedded course activities to create products, such as agar plates, that high schools and colleges use to teach biotechnology. This supply chain model was pioneered at Salt Lake Community College with ATE support and then refined and expanded by Bay Area Bioscience Education Community (BABEC) in California. BABEC’s BioScope Project has involved 200+ community college students honing their biotech skills and learning marketing while creating kits that have been used by thousands of teens in high school labs.
“Within educational programs doing biotech they teach by producing a product that is then utilized by another partner—linking the partners together,” Fletcher said of the supply chain model the center hopes to replicate across the U.S.
Meanwhile, leaders of the DNA Learning Center at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, will share their expertise in gene sequencing and genomics to help community college educators add DNA sequencing projects to their courses more economically. They will help form a hub specializing in this activity at the New York Institute of Technology.
The Community College Undergraduate Research Initiative at Finger Lakes Community Colleges, which has received ATE support and other grants from the National Science Foundation, will lead the effort to add bioscience research opportunities at community colleges and help recruit students to biotech careers.
Madison College, which leads the Consortium for Advanced Manufacturing of Cell and Tissue-based Products with ATE support, will host the hub for stem cell technologies.
Digital World Biology, a company that develops software apps and digital books for STEM instruction, will partner with Shoreline Community College in Shoreline, Washington, to lead the hub that will focus on immunology.
To ensure that the hubs work well with industry, Russ Read, executive director of the National Center for the Biotechnology Workforce at Forsyth Tech in Winston-Salem, North Carolina will coordinate an industry council.
Read’s initial efforts will involve disseminating information among InnovatATEBIO partners about the robust partnerships he developed with the biomedical industry with support from ATE and Department of Labor grants. He will also spotlight the industry collaborations that Tom Tubon, a biotechnology instructor at Madison College, has fostered, and the ACC Bioscience Incubator that Fletcher helped to establish as biotechnology department chair at Austin Community College (ACC).
One example of the effective practices the center will share is ACC’s contract with start-ups that rent space in the college’s biotech incubator. It requires start-ups to provide internships for students, or assign a staff member to serve as an adjunct instructor, or contribute content to the college’s curriculum.
With eight partner institutions and plans to develop 15 hubs for different biotech specializations during the next five years, Fletcher says the geographically dispersed team members are ramping up slowly, gathering baseline information in order to track the progress of the various initiatives, and building sustainability into their initiatives from the outset.
The center’s leaders are intentionally building on the community of biotech educators that were connected to Bio-Link, the Next Generation National Advanced Technological Education (ATE) Center of Excellence for Biotechnology and Life Sciences from 1998 to 2018 at City College of San Francisco.
Fletcher hopes to expand on Bio-Link’s robust relationships with biotech programs at two-year colleges to help them develop alumni associations with their graduates and generate stronger relationships with high schools to help with the overarching task of building the biotech workforce.