A new hands-on biotech course is hurtling Mt. Olive High School students toward the edge of the science frontier.
Biotechnology Lab Practices teaches juniors and seniors the ways that technology can harness a variety of biological processes to improve lives. The semester-long course focuses on laboratory techniques. It has students extracting DNA, detecting cancer genes, investigating foodborne outbreaks and doing a little genetic engineering by creating glow-in-the-dark bacteria.
In a recent experiment, students made cheese the lab way by mixing bacteria into milk and then adding an enzyme that breaks up the milk proteins to create curds. The activity showed the young scientists that, not only is cheesemaking a complex biochemical process, but also that mankind has been using available technology to manipulate biology for thousands of years.
The high school also offers robotics, engineering and industrial design courses.
“Biotechnology is revolutionizing the world,” said teacher Jennifer Brown, who, before coming to MOHS, spent three years working in a medical diagnostic lab which specialized in DNA-based molecular analysis. “It continues to advance as our tools for seeing, analyzing and manipulating the very small get better. It’s crucial that students study biotech because it is so important to our future and so many new jobs are in this field.”
To make hands-on biotechnology courses available, a new biotech lab was created. Over the summer, a mailroom on the first floor was converted for instructional use and outfitted with new lab benches and storage units, centrifuges, an interactive white board, a lab microwave and equipment to separate and copy DNA.
Before the lab was designed and the course created, teachers and administrators toured biotech labs at Princeton and Rutgers universities to research necessary equipment and room design.
The addition of biotech into the curriculum sets the stage for the expansion of the high school’s Distinguished Pathways Diploma Program. A Pathways diploma recognizes students who concentrate in a particular field and complete advanced-level courses. MOHS began its Pathways program in 2015 by expanding its offerings to create a sequence of courses needed to earn a Pathways Diploma in engineering/industrial design.
Now school administrators and teachers are working on establishing the courses needed to earn a Pathways Diploma in biotechnology. Biotechnology Laboratory Practices will be a requisite as will another course added this school year: Scientific Issues & Ethics.
Taught by science teacher Christian Jensen, Scientific Issues & Ethics is a semester-long course that explores the human side of biotechnology. In it, students research and debate the hot button issues that weigh societal values against scientific advances and possibilities (e.g., cloning, designer babies). The course is also designed to develop students into critical consumers of media and information.