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

Biotechnology Youth Apprenticeship Program Fosters Young Scientists

Student working in laboratory.

Photo credit: BTC Institute.

Ellyn Lepinski is an intern at Promega who started her biotechnology career path five years ago as a high school junior taking a course from the BTC Institute (www.btci.org) as part of the Biotechnology Youth Apprenticeship Program.

Ellyn credits the program with helping her achieve her goals:

“Over the course of two years in which I was a Youth Apprentice, I obtained numerous skills, both inside and outside of the lab. I gained valuable scientific experience, including techniques like gel electrophoresis, nucleic acid purification, PCR, SDS-PAGE, Western blotting, cell culture and more.

On a personal level, I became very close with other students in the class and with our instructors, Barbara Bielec and Chad Zimprich. Everyone involved was always very approachable and willing to help with both laboratory tasks and in terms of giving advice for the future.

Through the program, I was placed in Dr. Que Lan’s entomology lab at UW-Madison, beginning in 2009. While there, I worked on a project involving sterol carrier protein-2, a protein involved in cholesterol uptake in mosquitoes.Notably, I am still working in Dr. Lan’s lab, however my research focus has shifted to bacterial fermentation. In between working in Dr. Lan’s lab, I also worked at the Forest Products Laboratory (USDA).

Additionally, this past June, I began an internship at Promega in the Scientific Applications department. Here I work to develop new applications for existing projects. This November marks five years of laboratory research for me, which would not have been possible without the Youth Apprenticeship Program and everyone involved. In addition to the specific labs that I have had the opportunity to work in, my experience in the Youth Apprenticeship Program has allowed me to emerge as a leader in my college lab courses. The program has clearly made a phenomenal impact on my life and is something I am very grateful for.”

Photo credit: BTC Institute.

Photo credit: BTC Institute.

Since 1993, the BTC Institute in partnership with the Dane County School Consortium has helped make such opportunities possible to nearly 300 students from public schools throughout Dane County. The program includes a paid apprenticeship in an industry or UW-Madison research lab and specialized instruction. In addition to being paid for their work, students receive high school credit for their participation in the worksite and the specialized biotechnology course held at the BTC Institute.

One aspect of the program that makes it so effective and unique is the amount of time that students spend working. Youth apprentices who start as juniors in the program must work 900 paid work hours to earn the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Skill Standards Certificate from the State of Wisconsin, youth apprentices who start work as seniors must earn 450 work hours. Students have had employment at a variety of companies and UW-Madison research labs, a few examples that have hired multiple apprentices include Genus PIC (ABS), MOFA Global, Promega and laboratories in the UW-Madison Departments of Bacteriology, Biochemistry, Entomology, Genetics, Horticulture, Plant Pathology and Surgery. Many of the students, like Ellyn, continue to be employed by their worksite long after they graduate from high school—proof of how effective this program is in helping to create the next generation STEM workforce.

Each year the BTC Institute hosts a Youth Apprenticeship Program preview night for all of the Dane County youth apprenticeship options: biotechnology, automotive technician, health services, and many more (www.dcsc.org). This year the preview nights will be held February 24 and 25 starting at 5:00pm. Students in grades 10 and 11 who are interested in learning more about the program are encouraged to attend one of the evening sessions with a parent.

Opportunities for High School Students to Learn at the BTC Institute

Paul Simon famously sang about what it was like to engage as a learner in a high school environment—though his lack of education certainly hasn’t hurt him any, I do wonder about reading the “writing on the wall”. Frequently, in Education, we talk about the challenges of preparing students for careers that have yet to be invented. What to do?

One major initiative within K-16 education can broadly be referred to as “21st Century Skills”—those that are needed for individuals to be successful contributors in a society where concrete goals are moving targets. Though we don’t know the exact details, we’re pretty sure that there are some basic elements that all people will need to be successful contributors to society.

Partnership for 21st Century Skills has built a framework for understanding and aligning our education system toward these skills:

Photocredit: Partnership for 21st Century Skills http://www.p21.org/about-us/p21-framework

Photocredit: Partnership for 21st Century Skills http://www.p21.org/about-us/p21-framework

Applying this model to educational programming takes a lot of innovation and hard work on the part of instructors as well as students. However, students who have the opportunity to engage with a teaching and learning system that makes use of these concepts can reap big rewards when it comes to being able to understand how their learning can be applied to solving problems. Here at the BTC Institute, we have been fortunate to work with the Dane County (Wisconsin) School Consortium to develop two offerings for high school students in the area of biotechnology that really work within this model and give students the contextualization they need to develop academic and career skills. Continue reading