With Helios support, BIO5 expands STEM education outreach

December 9, 2009

By Flinn Foundation

Before Arizona’s top bioscience researchers were designing advanced diagnostics, extracting biofuels from algae, or synthesizing drugs to fight cancer, they were twelve year-olds sitting at desks, waiting for class to begin.

And then–someone inspired them.

Replicating such transformative moments is the aim of Jr. BIOTECH, a program the BIO5 Institute at the University of Arizona is initiating in Flagstaff, Tucson, and Yuma. With a $750,000 grant from the Helios Education Foundation, the program will train and equip middle-school science teachers to lead inquiry-based classroom activities–the kind most likely to encourage students to pursue science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers.

“These kind of hands-on experiments really bring science to life, more so than listening to a lecture or reading it from a textbook,” said Jim Fish, Tucson Unified School District assistant superintendent of middle schools, in the Arizona Daily Star. “This will stay with the kids.”

The middle-school program emerged from UA’s implementation of BIOTECH, a statewide program that has provided training to hundreds of high-school STEM teachers, who in turn have involved tens of thousands of high-school students in hands-on lessons. Along with training teachers in workshops and providing materials for them to use with their students, the program provides in-classroom support to ensure that teachers can successfully lead activities.

BIO5’s Nadja Anderson, director of the Jr. BIOTECH program, said that educational researchers have confirmed the utility of the inquiry-based approach.

“Studies show that if we can get the kids to see themselves in a science career, they are more likely to study science, obtain a degree in a science field, and have a career in science,” Anderson said in the Arizona Daily Star. “Science opens lots of doors, and that’s what we are working to do.”

Helios, which concentrates on preparing students for post-secondary educational success, saw in Jr. BIOTECH an opportunity to affect students at an important inflection point, when they are first being exposed to higher-level scientific concepts.

“Creating opportunities for students to achieve postsecondary education success starts early, and it’s tied to supporting programs that help increase curriculum rigor and relevance in middle-school classrooms,” said Helios Education Foundation President and CEO Paul Luna. “Helios’ investment in Jr. BIOTECH will help teachers increase their skills and knowledge in the STEM areas and, in return, help motivate students to explore opportunities in those fields.”

BIO5, which draws together scientists in the disciplines of agriculture, medicine, pharmacy, basic science, and engineering, serves as UA’s hub for collaborative research, but as Jr. BIOTECH attests, BIO5’s partnerships extend beyond the university. Its mission also involves bolstering Arizona’s bioscience industry base and the state’s educational system–which BIO5 director Fernando Martinez asserts are closely intertwined.

“American teenagers currently rank 25th in math and 21st in science relative to their international peers,” said Dr. Fernando D. Martinez, director of the BIO5 Institute.  “Jr. BIOTECH is an investment in building the highly skilled workforce Arizona needs to compete globally and to expand the state’s biotech industry.”

Partnering with BIO5 and Helios to implement Jr. BIOTECH are Tucson Unified School District’s Regional Science Center; Northern Arizona University’s Center of Science Teaching and Learning; Arizona Science Teacher Advancement and Research Training (AZ-START); the Crane School District; and UA Cooperative Extension.

For more information:

Grant allows students to put formulas to use,” Yuma Sun, 12/7/09

Middle school program helps bring science to life,” Arizona Daily Star, 11/27/2009

UA Launches Jr. BIOTECH Program in Arizona Middle Schools With $750,000 Grant From Helios Education Foundation,” UA news release, 11/24/2009