Biotechnology Teaching Online: A New Way to Look at Scientific Notebooks

This post is written by guest blogger, Peter Kritsch MS, Adjunct Instructor BTC Institute.

When I was in the middle of my junior year in high school, my family moved. We had lived in the first state for 12 years. I had gone to school there since kindergarten. Although it wasn’t a small district, I knew everybody and, for better or worse, everybody knew me. Often the first reaction I get when I tell people when we moved is that it must have been hard to move so close to graduation. The reality is . . . it really wasn’t. In fact, it was quite liberating. See, I didn’t have to live up to anybody else’s expectations of who I was based on some shared experience in 2nd grade. I had the opportunity to be who I wanted to be, to try new things without feeling like I couldn’t because that wasn’t who I was supposed to be. 

As long as I refrained from beginning too many sentences with “Well at my old school . . . “ people had to accept me for who I was in that moment, not for who they perceived me to be for the previous 12 years. Now, the new activities were not radically different. I still played baseball and still geeked out taking AP science classes, but I picked up new activities like golf, playing basketball with my friends, and even joined the yearbook. I know . . . “radically different.”  The point is that the new situation allowed me to try something new without worrying about what had always been. 

Peter teaches about biofuels in his virtual classroom.

The pandemic has forced a lot of us to move our classrooms online. In a short period of time, everything changed about how education was done. Our prior teaching experience, including the experience I had with doing blended learning (ooops . . . “back at my old school”), was helpful to a point.  But we quickly found out that being completely virtual was different. And as science teachers, how do you do more than just teach concepts when online? How do you help students to continue engaging in the crucial parts of science – observing, questioning, designing, analyzing, and communicating?

Continue reading “Biotechnology Teaching Online: A New Way to Look at Scientific Notebooks”

S.C.I.E.N.C.E. at Home

Today’s blog is written by guest blogger, Aidan Holmes, biotechnology instructor at the BTC Institute.

For K-12 students and their teachers, the BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute (BTC Institute) prioritizes offering in-person, hands-on science activities in classroom, laboratory and outdoor settings.  We are simply one among many educational organizations globally whose traditional program offerings have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

How might we keep sharing our love of science with upper elementary and middle school students?  We decided that one way to do that is to cull resources for parents/caregivers and feature ones we think make for great Science-at-Home experiences for children in these age groups. 

In doing this, we’ve come up with criteria that you may also find useful as you look at activities (including the ones we offer) that you might want to do with the children in your life.  These criteria reflect both practical considerations, assessment of educational values and recognize the impact of current stay-at-home orders. Is the activity:

We will go through these S.C.I.E.N.C.E. considerations and at the end, provide an example of how one of the activities on our website, “Milk Fireworks,” meets our S.C.I.E.N.C.E. goals!

Continue reading “S.C.I.E.N.C.E. at Home”

From BTCI to Africa and Back Again: One Student’s Journey in Science Education

Today’s blog is brought to us by and alumus of Dane County Youth Apprenticeship Program, Aidan Holmes.

In this blog I have the opportunity to write about how my experiences at the BTC Institute as a high school student were instrumental in leading me to my passion for science education, my Peace Corps experience, and my current role as a biotechnology instructor for the very same institute.

I became familiar with the BTC Institute as a student at Marshall High School when our biology teacher organized a biotechnology field trip for us. I loved learning about DNA and biotechnology since 7th grade so attending a field trip like this was an incredible opportunity to engage in hands-on biotechnology. When I learned about the Youth Apprenticeship Program in Biotechnology I knew I had to apply and enrolled during my senior year of high school. Through the program I took a weekly class at the BTC Institute and I worked as a student researcher in a biochemistry lab at UW-Madison. I enrolled for classes at UW-Madison the following year and pursued an undergraduate degree in genetics and a certificate in education and educational services. Continue reading “From BTCI to Africa and Back Again: One Student’s Journey in Science Education”

Dane County High School Students Attend Stem Cell Conference at Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery

Dane County highschool students in attendance at the stem cell conference.


Embryonic stem cells have the extraordinary ability to divide without limit yet maintain the potential to make all types of cells found in the human body.  This holds tremendous implications for the worlds of drug discovery and testing, cell production, and tissue transplantation medicine.

Benjamin


Overall, I’m really glad I decided to go to the talk.  I got to learn a lot about stem cells, how they are used in different parts of the body, and some of the difficulties with using stem cells.  It was definitely way more enjoyable than anything else I was planning on doing during that time.  If there are more opportunities like this that come up, I would definitely try to go to them. 

Thomas

Celebrating the 20th anniversary of Dr. James Thomson’s breakthrough work with induced pluripotent stem cells, the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery (WID) hosted a panel of University of Wisconsin stem cell scientists to discuss the future of their research on November 13th.  Entitled “Stem Cell Science: The Next 20 Years” and designed for the general public, the audience heard from Drs. Lynn Allen Hoffman, David Gamm and David Vereide, who talked about applying stem cell research to develop clinical applications for skin grafting, vision restoration and regenerative biology, respectively.

Continue reading “Dane County High School Students Attend Stem Cell Conference at Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery”

20 Years of Human Embryonic Stem Cells

Dr. David Russell presenting at the 13th Wisconsin Stem Cell Symposium. The session was moderated by Dr. James Thomson.

“20 years ago, when I first heard about the creation of human embryonic stem cells, I knew that this was the future. I immediately requested the cells from Dr. Thomson and dropped almost everything else we were doing in our lab. It has been my focus to this day.” The person presenting is Dr. David Russell, a professor at the University of Washington. He is just one of the hundreds of researchers gathered at the BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute (a nonprofit supported by Promega) in Madison, Wisconsin for the 13th Annual Wisconsin Stem Cell Symposium that happened this week. This year, it’s not just a symposium, but also a celebration—it’s the 20-year anniversary of the first-ever isolation and culture of human embryonic stem (ES) cells.

In 1998, Dr. James Thomson, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, created the first ES-cell line using donated (unused) embryos from a fertility clinic. The study sent a shockwave through the scientific community and general public. We now had the technology to grow human pluripotent ES cells—with the potential to develop into every cell type in the human body—in a dish! Thomson quickly became a celebrity scientist. (Thomson’s headshot was on the cover of the August 20, 2001 issue of Time Magazine, next to big text that read: “The Man Who Brought You Stem Cells”.)

However, not all were excited about the news. Backlash from conservative communities, who opposed the use of human embryos, resulted in a temporary ban on developing new ES cell lines with government funding. Nonetheless, the ban did not deter researchers from studying ES cells using private or state funding. By 2001, human ES cells have been successfully derived into neural, cardiac, hematopoietic, endothelial, and insulin-producing cells. In 2010, the first in-human clinical trial was initiated; which used human ES cell-derived materials to treat spinal cord injury.

2006 marked another milestone in stem cell research: the discovery of induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. Dr. Shinya Yamanaka at Kyoto University successfully reprogrammed adult fibroblasts (common cells in connective tissue that form the extracellular matrix and collagen) to revert back into an embryonic-like pluripotent state—simply by expressing four specific genes. He named these reprogrammed cells “induced pluripotent stem cells” or iPS cells. A year later, human iPS cells were made in a similar fashion by both Thomson and Yamanaka. Yamanaka later received the 2012 Nobel Prize (some argue that Thomson deserved to share the prize).

Photo credit: 123rf stock photos.

The ability to reprogram adult cells back into a pluripotent state suggested we could create an unlimited supply of pluripotent cells that genetically matched a specific individual—without the ethical baggage of using human embryos. This meant, in theory, you could take fibroblasts from a patient with a neurological disorder, such as Parkinson’s disease, revert the fibroblasts into iPS cells, edit the “faulty genes” in those cells, then redifferentiate the healthy iPS cells into neural stem cells that can be introduced back into the same patient to produce healthy neurons. Of course, this is easier said than done. The technical difficulties and high cost of generating and editing iPS cells from individual patients have complicated the development of iPS-based treatments. Currently, there is only one human clinical trial using cells derived from iPS cells, which treats macular degeneration (an incurable eye disease that leads to blindness).

Despite the emergence of iPS cells, ES cells have continued to dominate in the clinical realm. To this date, there are 18 clinical trials using ES cells to treat various disorders, including macular degeneration, Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injury, heart disease and diabetes. The future is bright, but there is still one major problem in ES cell-based therapies. Because ES cell treatments use donor cells from other healthy individuals—not the patients’ own cells—there is a high risk of immune rejection. But no fear, scientists have a plan.

In 2017, Dr. David Russell (mentioned in the beginning of this blog) re-engineered human ES cells to remove specific proteins—human leukocyte antigens (HLA)—from the cell surface. HLA proteins allow the immune system to determine whether the presenting cell is “self” or “foreign”. Removing HLA proteins is like wrapping the foreign cell with an invisible cloak, rendering it unnoticeable by the immune system. In his talk at the Stem Cell Symposium, Russell discussed the many advantages of using these “universal donor cells (UDCs)” to treat diseases. Only one cell line is needed, which reduces the cost, complexity and time required for clinical trials. Also, it does not require immunosuppression, which weakens the patient’s immune system. Russell and many others believe that UDCs are the future of regenerative medicine. In fact, UDC-based therapies to treat cancer, macular degeneration, skin wounds and type 1 diabetes are already being developed.

It is amazing to see how far we have come over the last 20 years. Thanks to visionary scientists like James Thomson, Shinya Yamanaka, David Russell—and countless other principal investigators, post-docs and grad students who work tirelessly in the lab every day—treatments for many life-threatening diseases may be available in the near future. Nonetheless, there is still much more to learn and many more challenges to overcome. Who knows where the next 20 years will take us?

FutureQuest17: Dynamic Career Exploration for Middle School Students

Isabel Agasie speaks with middle school students at FutureQuest 17.
Isabel Agasie speaks with middle school students at FutureQuest 17.

The Dane County School Consortium and the Madison Metropolitan School District’s Career and Technical Education Division collaborated to offer FutureQuest17 on December 6th at the Alliant Energy Center.  Designed as a hands-on experience for Dane County middle school students to explore areas of potential interest within a 16 career cluster, over 70 companies provided information and activities for 5300+ attendees.

BTC Institute staff members (Isabel Agasie, Amy Prevost and Karin Borgh) and volunteer Promega production scientists (Molly Nyholm and Kay Rashka) created a lively table area that focused on bioluminescence. Our space included opportunities to see an illustration of the range of careers in a biotechnology company like Promega, practice with different sizes of pipettes, view glowing recombinant luciferase, watch a scrolling slide show illustrating bioluminescence both in nature and in the lab and consider why a scientist might be interested in bioluminescence as a research tool.

Most importantly, we were able to engage in many wonderful conversations, and for this we needed all five of us since the schedule for the day included 14 periods of 20 minutes each—our estimate is that we were able to speak with ~40–50 students during each of these cycles!

As Molly noted:

The questions students asked were fantastic!!  “What is the chemical composition of this luciferin solution?”  “How much money do you make?”  “Do all glowing creatures have the same luciferase enzyme or are they different?”  “Are there any bioluminescent fish in Wisconsin?”  “Do I have to go to school for as long as you did if I want to be a scientist?”  “What pH is this solution?”  “Does this have potassium or sodium iodide?”  “Can I do an internship?”  “Can I be on the culinary team at Promega?”  “Does my glow paint have luciferase in it?”  “Do you have to take luciferase and luciferin out of those creatures or is there a way to make it in the lab?”

Kay Rashka works with students at FutureQuest17.
Kay Rashka works with students at FutureQuest17.

And, Isabel added:

It was really great to connect with students and also with teachers. Lots of fun being surrounded by kids and fantastic adults. Some kids were surprised to learn that a biotechnology company hires people in other areas besides science. They asked about diversity and were very glad to hear that there are many different kinds of jobs in biotech companies.

Some of the other presenters in the STEM area of the event that we were in close proximity to included: the City of Madison Engineering Division (where students could construct marble runs that represented water flow), Saris (where students could ride bikes set up to display a training program), Laser Tag (try it out!), very active construction companies’ hammering stations and the MG&E’s electric car. In other words, the level of activity was high, and it was wonderful to contribute to this event—we’ll be back next year!

Playing it Forward: Biotechnology Youth Apprenticeship and Mentorship

Amani Gillette’s Story

Amani working in the laboratory of Dr. McFall-Ngai’s as a high school Youth Apprentice

Amani Gillette, a junior from LaFollette High School in Madison, started the Biotechnology Youth Apprenticeship Program (YAP) in Fall Semester, 2010.  An outstanding youth apprentice (YA) throughout her two years in the program, she excelled in both the specialized laboratory course at the BTC Institute and in her work site research under the mentorship of Professor Margaret McFall-Ngai, UW-Madison Department of Medical Microbiology & Immunology.  Amani’s characterization of a gene and protein found in a small tropical squid resulted in her first scientific publication and poster presentation.

Fast forward— after receiving a B.S. in Biomedical Engineering at Michigan Technological University (which included working in a tissue engineering lab and two summers interning at Promega Corporation under the supervision of Dr. Dan Lazar to help develop an assay for autophagy), Amani is now back in Madison. She is in her second year of graduate school and, working with Dr. Melissa Skala at the Morgridge Institute for Research, is currently mentoring Biotechnology YA Ava VanDommelen (senior from DeForest High School). Following in Amani’s footsteps, Ava will present her research nationally this January at the SPIE conference (the International Society of Optics and Photonics). Continue reading “Playing it Forward: Biotechnology Youth Apprenticeship and Mentorship”

On the Road with the Biotechnology Field Trips Program

BFT-aThe On the Road (OTR) BTC Institute Biotechnology Field Trips (BFT) program is rolling right along!  We are doing our best to brave the winter weather to take hands-on science activities all over the state of Wisconsin.

The BTC Institute BFT program served over 3,400 students last year, most of them here at the BTC in Fitchburg.  That said, each year the OTR part of the program is growing in order to serve schools that cannot travel here for various reasons, such as distance, bus costs and the need to minimize out of school time. Continue reading “On the Road with the Biotechnology Field Trips Program”

The Unforgettable Experience of Traveling: Beyond the Formal Learning Experience

CTPGE students (l to r): Anna Facchetti, Anqi Fu, Pureum Jeon, and Hajeong Sim; Anna and Anqi are UW-Madison graduate students.
CTPGE students (l to r): Anna Facchetti, Anqi Fu, Pureum Jeon, and Hajeong Sim;
Anna and Anqi are UW-Madison graduate students.

Last fall, I blogged about our partnership with Promega-Hannam BTCI at Hannam University in Daejeon, Korea , providing an overview of the ways in which we have collaborated over the years.

This year, 2016,  included the participation of two Hannam students, Pureum Jeon and Hajeong Sim, in one of our advanced courses, Core Techniques in Protein and Genetic Engineering (CTPGE), which offers graduate credits through the University of Wisconsin-Madison. UW-Madison is a bustling campus with a large international student, staff and faculty population, and Promega Corporation is a global company with a diverse workforce that brings a steady stream of international visitors to its main campus in Fitchburg. My sense is that sometimes those of us who live and work in environments like this, who also regularly tap into global news, can lose touch with what it’s like to leave home and travel to a completely new place, perhaps somewhere far away where the language spoken is not your own.

Our experience with Pureum and Hajeong this summer was a reminder of how important these experiences can be for those who make these journeys. Their participation in the course provided them with valuable training, but the small things, like walking around the UW campus, having dinner with one of us, driving through rural Wisconsin and feeling welcomed at the hotel, also meant so much.

In their own words, here are a few of their thoughts: Continue reading “The Unforgettable Experience of Traveling: Beyond the Formal Learning Experience”

Summer 2016: Exciting Science Programs for Kids at the BTC Institute!

First, a quick update: Hard to believe, but we’re in our 21st academic year at the BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute (BTC Institute).  February finds us immersed in our usual second semester offerings.  Our Biotechnology Field Trips program is on the way to record attendance, but it’s not too late for you to schedule a visit for this spring, or for a group this summer: btci blog photo 2http://www.btci.org/k12/bft/bft.html.

We’re also pleased to report that work site mentors have been found for almost all of the juniors and seniors enrolled in the State of Wisconsin Youth Apprenticeship Program in Biotechnology – Dane County (http://www.btci.org/k12/yap/yap.html).

Now, let’s turn our attention to Summer 2016.  We’re excited to once again offer great opportunities for upper elementary, middle and high school students to engage in activities that will allow them to explore their interests in the life sciences – and to learn a lot along the way. And, it’s not too soon to think about summer! Here’s a rundown of what’s in store: Continue reading “Summer 2016: Exciting Science Programs for Kids at the BTC Institute!”