Building a workforce

WORTHINGTON -- There is a movement in science classes today to take the textbooks away from students in exchange for real lab experience. That movement has begun in Worthington and in school districts across the country as educators realize the n...

WORTHINGTON -- There is a movement in science classes today to take the textbooks away from students in exchange for real lab experience.

That movement has begun in Worthington and in school districts across the country as educators realize the need for more up-to-date information to teach their students about science, particularly about biotechnology.

Gail O'Kane, education-industry partnership manager for biosciences and nanosciences in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) System, moderated a session Friday morning during the Regional Bioscience Conference on the link between education and industry, and how that link is helping to build a workforce within the biosciences.

O'Kane described the work taking place in Worthington, from the collaboration between Minnesota West Community and Technical College and Prairie Holdings Group (PHG), to the training center developed at PHG that is available to science students in both the middle and high schools.

"This is just a partnership that's unlike any other in the state," said O'Kane.


While Worthington may be the first community in the state where education and industry are linking together, as guest speakers Norm Lee and Elaine Johnson pointed out, other states -- and countries -- are realizing the value in establishing those same types of connections.

Lee is coordinator of MindSet, the Manitoba Network for Science and Technology, based in Manitoba, Canada, while Johnson is director of Bio-Link, the National Science Foundation Advanced Technological Education (ATE) Center for Biotechnology at City College in San Francisco, Calif. Both are involved in program development for middle and high school students.

"Our young people can do incredible things," said Lee. "Oftentimes the adults stand in the way."

Lee said economic necessity was a driving force behind MindSet's innovative approach to science education.

"We have a very fast growing area in the biotech (field)," said Lee, adding that science teachers weren't educated enough about the rapidly advancing field to be able to teach it in their classrooms.

As a result, MindSet has helped get those teachers into bioscience labs and networking with industry professionals through conferences so they can learn and do a better job teaching their students.

"It's not a matter of telling people -- it's getting people directly involved," said Lee. "We don't do anything that doesn't produce measurable, tangible results."

MindSet pays science and technology teachers to take part in industry events, and organizes tours of bioscience and biotech companies for teachers to see firsthand the types of careers that are available to students.


One of the major programs of MindSet, however, is working with fifth- through 12th- grade students to do research-based biotech experiments. Lee said projects that are approved receive a $200 grant, and MindSet provides mentoring to the students for five months as the experiments are conducted. The program is supported by 150 mentors in the bioscience and biotech fields, and the students' work has produced three patents.

In Johnson's work with Bio-Link, bioscience and biotech education is concentrated in the college arena.

"In today's global, knowledge-driven economy, a college degree will no longer secure a good job," said Johnson.

More than 70 percent of today's post-secondary students considered non-traditional -- meaning they are age 23 or older, no longer financially supported by parents and seeking additional training to gain employment. It is those students Johnson wants to introduce to the field of bioscience.

"We know that we're looking at a collection of industries ... that are all involved in this whole life science arena," said Johnson. "We're looking at changes in the industry, but we're also looking at changes in education -- including skills to make sure people get jobs."

Experience is also important, said Johnson, adding that internships are also part of Bio-Link's programming.

One of the programs created by Bio-Link is the Bridge to Biotech. When it was first established, Johnson said they had difficulty recruiting students, despite the more than 800 biotech-based companies located in the region.

To build interest in the program, Johnson said they went to African-American and Spanish-speaking neighborhoods in the Bay Area. Learning communities were established to teach English, math and hands-on biotech classes.


"We now have over 600 students in the biotech program," Johnson said.

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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