It was a proud day for Providence Public Schools, especially the Juanita Sanchez Educational Complex (JSEC), as Superintendent Dr. Susan Lusi, Mayor Jorge O. Elorza, University of Rhode Island representatives, elected officials and JSEC staff and students joined together for a ribbon-cutting on March 18 for a new biotechnology laboratory that is designed and equipped to mirror biotechnology firms and university laboratories.
Six months after breaking ground, the $200,000 laboratory was constructed from a former classroom previously used as a dual classroom and laboratory into three rooms for a theory classroom, a clean room and an upgraded laboratory to conduct real-world experiments. The classroom will be used for lectures, group work and class discussions. A clean room, located between the classroom and the laboratory, is where students put on sterilized clothing to prevent contamination. The laboratory now includes centrifuges, freezers, warming ovens, microscopes and plenty of storage space.
“It’s not a classroom anymore,” said an exuberant Benjamin Gormley, biotechnology educator and a driving force behind the development of the lab. “It’s a lab where kids are already working. We’ve gotten a lot of help, we have a lot of partners and we are preparing students to meet the demand for highly skilled lab workers as well as careers in nursing and biology.”
JSEC students are offered a 4-course biotechnology career and technical sequence, including the ability to enroll in a 3-credit online biotechnology course (BCH 190) in their senior year through an articulation agreement with URI. The program, launched in early 2014 with the advisement of URI’s Dr. Albert Kausch, currently enrolls 73 students, including 59 females and 14 males in grades 11 and 12. The program has made a strong commitment to encourage young women in pursuing STEM careers.
The new laboratory will support the program, which includes an integrated academic and industry curriculum, employability and work readiness training, and internship experiences that prepare students for a medical or lab sciences career. The program of study in biotechnology is just one of three approved by the Rhode Island Department of Education.
“This is fantastic,” said Dr. Kausch. The lab, he said, will help students to learn where all forms of life begin as well as the many ethical issues related to biotechnology such as organ development, stem cells and cloning.
“A well-educated public is so important because they will be part of the important decisions in these controversial areas,” said Kausch.
“Our kids are going to have a leg up when they enter the industry or go to college,” said Principal Michaela Keegan. “We are helping to prepare them for college and the world. We have so much talent and capability among kids graduating from our high schools and colleges and we need to do a better job of finding jobs for them in Providence so they can choose to stay here.”
The lab, she said, is a “shining example of what we can do in our school department and throughout our city” and showed “the power of collaboration and partnerships.”
“This is more than just a lab,” said Supt. Lusi. “It’s a significant investment in the academic success of 73 of today’s JSEC students and in thousands more students to follow. Employers are looking for Rhode Island to develop a stable, highly educated workforce. This is a long-term economic strategy and it’s worth the investment.”
As the demand grows for highly qualified workers in the field of biotechnology, the laboratory provides students with access to real-world facilities to conduct experiments. Equipment includes custom-designed hospital-grade cabinets, sinks, counters, a super freezer for maintaining cell lines, centrifuges and related equipment that enables students to perform experiments. Gormley hopes to have bacteria and animal cell lines maintained by students.
Students were on hand to demonstrate the laboratory equipment and said they loved the new facility because it offers a very hands-on way of learning. Dressed in their lab coats, they said they felt like scientists as they showed Mayor Elorza, Supt. Lusi and other guests the equipment and experiments they were conducting.
As students use state-of-the-art equipment, they will learn to demonstrate proficiency in lab techniques and develop student-centered lab experiences that solidify the content of genetics, evolution and biology. The lab was funded by a federal Carl D. Perkins grant and the Career and Technical Education (CTE) Categorical Fund created by the Rhode Island General Assembly.
The ribbon-cutting is the culmination of a three-year process that included designing the laboratory, the strategic purchase of equipment, and construction.
“I feel great for the kids,” said Gormley. “Now they get to do real science in a real laboratory.”
The JSEC biotechnology program is designed to prepare students for a very large growth sector in both the Rhode Island and national economies. According to a 2013 Bioscience Skills Study by Tech Collective and funded by the Governor’s Workforce Board, bioscience is one of Rhode Island highest growth potential industries. From 2002-2012, employment in the biosciences grew by 24 percent, which is significant in a state with sagging job growth. Every respondent to the report’s employer survey indicated that the lack of skilled workers to hire is their biggest challenge. Industry leaders reported that good clinical and laboratory practices are among the largest skills gaps in their companies.
Students at JSEC take the same math and science courses as freshmen and sophomores. As a junior or senior, they must choose either a community development or Biotechnology/Biomedical track. As students transition to their senior year, they must complete three additional components to the program; BCH 190 Issues in Biotechnology, certifications and internships.
According to an independent evaluation conducted this year, CTE Biotechnology students scored higher on the PSATs, had higher attendance rates and higher participation in the SAT/ACT achievement tests and enrollment in Advanced Placement classes than their non-CTE peers.