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Bringing Biotechnology Into the Classroom: JHU Biotechnology Education Certificate Helps Teachers Master the Art and Science of Biotechnology

James Hubert Blake High School science teacher Elaine Power has an undergraduate degree in zoology, two master’s degrees, including Elaine Powerone in teaching, and a resume that includes a long career in health policy and six years in the classroom. There’s no question that her education and industry experience are vast, but when she decided she wanted to resurrect the school’s biotechnology elective, she knew she needed more education to effectively do so.

So last summer, Power enrolled in the Johns Hopkins Certificate in Biotechnology Education program, which helps grade 6-12 science teachers as well as curriculum and instructional leaders strength their content knowledge and pedagogic techniques in bioscience and develop ways to teach bioscience effectively in their classrooms.

The certificate program, which is housed in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, is offered through a partnership between the Center for Biotechnology Education and the School of Education and emphasizes inquiry-oriented approaches and integrating technology in bioscience education. During classes, teachers analyze recent research on bioscience education, reflect on their learning and practice, and develop teaching tools and assessment strategies to engage students in bioscience-related problems and inquiries. All but the required laboratory class can be completed online, a bonus for teachers who often need the flexibility.

“This program is designed to give teachers the skillset they need to prepare the next generation of biotechnology leaders and a basic theoretical understanding of the field,” said Kristina Obom, director for the Center for Biotechnology Education and program director for the Master of Science in Bioinformatics.

Starting next week, Power will be applying those skills she’s already gained to teach two sessions of a biotechnology elective class at Blake High School. The fact that the elective garnered such great interest – the school had to stop accepting enrollments for the course when it reached 64 students – is exciting for Power, especially considering that Blake is known for its signature arts and humanities program.

“I was concerned about getting just 20 students so I could hold one class,” Power said. “Many seniors don’t have to take a science course and instead take extra arts and humanities classes. This course’s popularity makes a nice statement about how interested our students are in science.”

Power believes that she’ll be able to make her class especially interesting to her students because her classmates aren’t just teachers. They’re also working biotechnology professionals.

“The people who currently are working in the field have such a different take on the topics than I do,” Power said. “When we talk about issues, they can bring in examples of lab work they’re doing in fields like cancer therapy and link it to the topic. It helps me to understand some of the science better, and I’ll be able to bring their experience back into my classroom.”

As an example, she talks about sharing information with her students about the use of genetically pure mice strain for experiments.

“I know when we talk about this topic and I tell students that getting a genetically pure strain often means mating a brother and sister or parent and child mouse, the students are going to be grossed out,” she added. “But it’s definitely going to get their attention!”

Power said that stories such as this are ones she likely wouldn’t get in a traditional education program where her classmates would all be teachers.

She also hopes the program will help her make connections that will lead to field trips or in-class visits by working scientists, both of which can have a powerful effect on the students, though she admits that goal may be a little more difficult because of the program’s online format. Still, she’s getting all she can out of the online courses, including coming up with interesting ideas about how she can mesh online and in-class learning in my classrooms. And she plans to utilize the JHU Center for Biotechnology Education faculty to help identify some of the online resources she wants to use with her students.

“Support from the Hopkins faculty has been incredible,” Power said. “They tell me if I need anything, to just give them a call. They’re happy to meet with me outside of class to go through labs that I might use in the classroom, show me how to use new equipment. It’s an amazing level of support.”

According to Patrick Cummings, program director for the Master of Science in Biotechnology, Power is one of the lucky ones. She has found a way to fund the program. Many teachers can’t.

“We held information sessions about this program and drew 70-80 teachers interested in taking it,” Dr. Cummings said. “But with school districts cutting back funding, most said that ultimately they couldn’t afford the classes.”

One bright light, however, has been a partnership that the Center has formed with the medical diagnostics company BD Diagnostics, which includes BD’s helping to offset course costs for teachers from high-need schools, and donating equipment and lab supplies to teachers enrolled in the program.

Dr. Cummings said he was disappointed that more teachers aren’t taking advantage of that financial aid;  however, one reason for that may be because teachers don’t know it’s available.

He also said he would love to see more companies step up to the plate and offer similar funding opportunities to help more teachers become educated about the fast-changing world of biotechnology. After all, it’s those teachers who can help influence the future workforce when it comes to career paths.

Read a Q&A with Elaine Power.  

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