On the fourth floor of Harvard’s Science Center, high school biology students from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School (CRLS) put on safety goggles and gloves, and step up to lab tables conveniently set up with pipettes, centrifuges, and other implements.
Then they get to work isolating their own DNA.
“This is real-life science, the stuff that people who work in biotech are actually doing in their labs, and the fact that kids get to do this at the high school level is amazing,” said Janira Arocho, a biology teacher at CRLS. “I didn’t get to do this type of stuff until I was in college.”
Teaching younger students the tools of modern science is the goal of the Amgen Biotech Experience (ABE,) a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) program that opens the field of biotechnology to high schoolers and their teachers, while at the same time teaching them how to approach science as critical thinkers and innovators — and a lot about who they are.
“It’s normally really, really challenging to give them a good sense of what happens just by lecturing about it,” said Tara Bennett Bristow, site director of the Massachusetts ABE. “The ABE program is not only helping to increase their scientific literacy in biotechnology, it’s exposing them in a hands-on fashion, which generates enthusiasm.”
In its sixth year in Massachusetts, the local branch of the program is a partnership between the Harvard and the Amgen Foundation. A foundation grant through the University’s Life Sciences Outreach Program provides the kits of materials and equipment for students to do labs that mirror the process of therapeutic research and development, and Massachusetts teachers participating in the program complete summer training workshops at Harvard.
Arocho, who has participated in the program for several years, said with the training, “I was able to learn everything my students would be doing ahead of time, as opposed to learning along with them in my own classroom.”
More than 80,000 students around the world — 6,000 of them from Massachusetts high schools, along with 100 of their teachers — participated in ABE last year. At Harvard, which in July received another three-year grant to continue ABE programming, about 500 CRLS students are able to use the undergraduate biology teaching laboratories, where their own teacher leads the lab and graduate students and postdoctoral fellows are on site for assistance.