OVER THE PAST 20 YEARS THE INDUSTRIES THAT DRIVE NORTH CAROLINA’S ECONOMY HAVE CHANGED. GOOD-PAYING LOW-SKILL JOBS ARE BEING REPLACED BY SCIENCE BASED HIGH-SKILLED JOBS.  JOBS REQUIRING MORE TRAINING AND EDUCATION THAN HIGH SCHOOLS CURRENTLY PROVIDE. THIS SHIFT HAS FURTHER ALIENATED STUDENTS FROM RURAL AND UNDERSERVED COMMUNITIES. TO ENSURE THE CONTINUED ECONOMIC GROWTH OF OUR STATE, and the participation of talent from all regions, NEW EDUCATIONAL APPROACHES MUST BE DEVELOPED AND EMBRACED TO PREPARE HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATES FOR THESE HIGH-SKILL JOBS.


BERTIE EARLY COLLEGE HIGH SCHOOL

The Bertie Early College High School (BECHS), located in Windsor, NC, was established in 2008 through a partnership with North Carolina New Schools, North Carolina State University, and Martin Community College.  BECHS is a biotechnology and agriscience focused high school designed to provide students in this tier one community training in the skills for the 21st century.  At BECHS students can earn an Associate in Arts Diploma, Associate in Arts Degree, or two years of college credit that can be transferred to a four-year college or university.  By empowering students to take more ownership of their education, and giving teachers the freedom to innovate, the student dropout rate at BECHS is less than 1%, compared to 3.36% for the traditional Bertie High School, and over 86% of BECHS students demonstrate proficiency on end-of-course exams, compared to 48% for the traditional Bertie High School.

Over the past three years, and with the help of support from the NC State College of Agriculture and Life Sciences' Wynne Innovation Fund and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund's Student Science Enrichment Program, the students at BECHS have been learning how to clone, express, purify and validate recombinant proteins to be used in agricultural research being conducted at NC State.

The goal of this project is to establish a mini-biotech company, Falcon Biomanufacturing, in their biotechnology classroom.  This biotech company will serve as an innovative teaching model to give students authentic learning experiences related to biology, chemistry, physics, and business elements of the NC Essential and Common Core Standards. This will help the students link these concepts through higher order thinking, and more importantly, link biotechnology and science to their daily lives and possible careers.  


Summer Biotech Boot Camp

Working at NC State

Each year of the program starts with an intensive 5-day short course on biotechnology and protein expression held at NC State.  While on campus, the students attend lectures and perform lab activities at the Biomanufacturing Teaching and Education Center (BTEC).  The summer program introduces the scientific tools and techniques that are the core of their biotech company.  The students learn that science, and the scientific method, are not just vocabulary words or subject in school, but a discipline and an approach to answering questions.  They learn how biotechnology is used everyday to make and improve the products they eat, wear and use.  Over the course of the week, the students use these technologies to produce recombinant protein.  In the course of the five days the students isolate colonies of transformed bacteria, produce starter cultures, induce protein expression, lyse bacteria, confirm the presence of their protein by western blot, determine the protein concentration of their lysates, use activated cobalt columns to affinity purify their protein, and reconfirm its purity by western blot.  While this is a lot of new concepts and skills to learn in one week, the goal is not to make them experts but show them the process, and expose them to the terminology.  This gives the students a foundation to build from when they start the process of establishing their own protein production system in their lab.

BUILDING PARTNERSHIPS WITH INDUSTRY

While there have been considerable efforts to promote science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in K-12 education over the past decade, these efforts still have not had a dramatic impact on the numbers of people pursuing STEM related careers.  This has been especially true for students from rural and under served communities.  One of the primary impediments to this is not intelligence or aptitude, but rather one of perception. Many students from rural and underserved communities believe that science and science-based careers happen in other places.  They don't have personal connections or know any one working in a STEM field and therefore can't see the their path to a STEM based career.

To address this, a key part of this program is to helps students make these connections.  This starts during their week at NC State.  Through a combination of field trips to various biotech companies in the RTP area as well as STEM professionals coming to visit with them on campus, the students begin developing informal mentoring relationships.  Meeting STEM professionals with different backgrounds at biotech companies helps them develop the skills, including soft-skills, needed to be successful. 


During the summer of 2017 the members of Falcon Biomanufacturing visited two area biotech companies:

NOVOZYMES

This was the third year the scientists, engineers, and leadership of Novozymes RTP hosted the BECHS students.  Following a brief welcome and introduction to the products and industries Novozymes supports by Dr. Derrick Lewis, the students were treated to an interactive tour of their research laboratories.  The scientists at Novozymes walked the students through how they screen, select, characterize, and then develop commercial applications of naturally occurring microbes for use in promoting the production of crops around the world.

After the tours, the students were treated to lunch where they got to meet with Novozymes staff and learn more about their backgrounds, where they went to school, what they majored in, how they came to work in biotech, and what they like about their jobs.  The students were amazed by the diversity of educational backgrounds, personal interests, and paths to success.

BIORESOURCE INTERNATIONAL

2017 was also the third year the students visited BioResource International (BRI).  This relatively young biotech company, founded in 1999, is based on discoveries made at NC State University.  BRI has commercialized 3 animal feed enzyme products to date, with distribution to over 30 countries worldwide.  Getting to see this rapidly growing former "start-up" biotech.  When they first arrived, they were welcomed by Dr. Fang Zhou, Director of Research.  The students then watched a video welcome by Dr. Shih, co-founder and CEO, who couldn't be there that day.  In the video he described the history of the company and value of not being afraid to follow your passions. 

Students then heard from other BRI team members Dr. Kelly Broccio, Dr. Ching-Sung Tsai, and Kate Leahy.  The students then toured BRI's laboratories, stopping along the way to meet, interact, and learn from multiple BRI scientists.  They learned about feed enzymes and how they work; helping the students understand how the enzymes BRI produces are key to achieving their mission to improve food animal production around the world.  After the tour, the students and the BRI team discussed career paths with many of the students asking what they needed to do to get a job at BRI in the future.


Previous Visits to RTP


Falcon Biomanufacturing

After their week-long short course at NC State, the students are then tasked with translating the skills they learned to the biotechnology laboratory at BECHS.  They have all of the equipment they need, but some of it is different from what they used at BTEC.  Also most of the steps do not fit neatly into a 90 min high school class block schedule.  So the students need to figure out how do they achieve the same results, with different tools, and different time constraints.  This is no small task.  To do this, the students work in small teams on individual components of each step in the process.  And with the help of weekly Google Hangouts and monthly visits to BECHS by Dr. Koci and Mrs. Ali from NC State, they students evaluate their results, design experiments to further optimize and then cross-train the other teams once a method is established.

In May of each school year, the Falcon Biomanufacturing students present posters based on their work at the BECHS Biotechnology Symposium.  This past year's symposium attracted attendees from across the state and from as far away as Washington D.C.

In addition to presenting at their own symposium, the students have attended and presented at several meetings.  Most notably they received an honorable mention for their presentation at the 2015 Stewards of the Future Symposium at NC State.  In addition, the past two years students have traveled to Boston, MA (2016) and New Orleans LA (2017) to attend the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology. 


Great Students Need Great Teachers

BECHS has a small student body, served by a small group of the best teachers in the eastern North Carolina.  At the core of this project is Mr. Bruce Boller.  Mr. Boller has been teaching high school science for over 30 years, with most of that time in Bertie County and is the instructor for Biotechnology I and II.   Mr. Boller is a former Kenan Fellow, former Syngenta Summer Fellow, and the 2014 recipient of the NC Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education Center Outstanding 9-16 Educator Award.


Ultimate goal

At the end of this process we expect to have a student directed, sustainable model for authentic biotechnology education at the high school and early college level that can then be replicated in other Tier 1 communities across NC and the nation.  This will ensure everyone can participate in STEM careers and compete for the high-skilled jobs of the 21st century regardless of where they live.  Furthermore, society benefits by having the most diverse talent pool possible.

For more information about our project please contact Dr. Matt Koci (mdkoci@ncsu.edu) or Mr. Bruce Boller (bboller@bertie.k12.nc.us), or check back here for updates throughout the year.