Retooling Biotech Education: an Interview with Battelle’s Mitch Horowitz

At BIO 2009, Battelle Managing Partner Mitch Horowitz unveiled the first Biotechnology Education Report card, a collaboration between BIO, Battelle and the Biotech Institute, which ranked each of the 50 states on the strength of its biotech training efforts. We spoke with Mr. Horowitz briefly at BIO. Keys to improving biotech education, he says, will be establishing national standards, improving teacher training and re-evaluating pay, and, above all, awakening a sense of excitement in young people about science.

By Agnes Shanley, Editor in Chief

PhM – How did you conceive the idea of the biopharma workforce training report?

MH – Since 2002, we have issued a biennial state by state report on biotechnology, but the focus on that report was on how biosciences were evolving state by state, not on how the country is doing on bioscience education… 

We decided  that we’d run the education report between years where we issue the state-by-state biotech reports, so our next report of this type will be released at BIO in 2011. 

Basically, the focus of the report came down to four questions:

  • Student performance and actual achievement
  • Standards and curricula for bioscience programs
  • Teacher quality, preparation and training, which, studies show, is the most important element
  • Experiential learning. A recent piece in Science shows that, if in eighth grade, you say you’re interested in life sciences, your chances of your going into the field doubles.

PhM – The states that did the best were those where biotech is focused now---California and New Jersey?

MH – That’s true, and Massachusetts also did well…The southern states are still trying to play catch up.  As former governor Hunt mentioned, even North Carolina, which has put a lot of emphasis on the biotech pipeline, does better than other southern states, but is still, overall a second-tier state performer.

PhM – What are the best practices from leading states that everyone can learn from?

MH – Standards are very important.  Not every state bioscience high school standard requires the teaching of biotechnology.  31 states have standards that speak to biotech, but a lot of states are missing that. 
Also, there’s still a lot of variance across states on teacher quality and preparation.  An individual might pass teacher certification standards, but does he or she really understand how to do science? Only 77% of middle and high school science teachers, nationally, have degrees in science.

States are experimenting and running innovative programs, whether in a STEM (scientific, technical and mathematics)-focused high school, or in collaboration with universities on teacher training and professional development, or in career awareness and experiential learning.

But we’re concerned about how systematic the scale of these programs could be, so that they could move from being nice one-off’s to programs that affect all students, teachers.

Developing systematic approaches will be the big challenge as the years go by, and we hope to see more systematic efforts.

PhM – Many have called for the need tor a broad-based approach, but how do we do SPUTNIK in the U.S. when public school budgets are being cut?

MH – It’s not really an issue of money.  Investments may not be growing, but we still spend a lot  of money on education.  It’s a question of making smart choices not hard choices on spending.

Today, at the report unveiling BIO, we had broad audience that included teachers, industry reps and state officials.  What came out of the discussion was the fact that every state is trying to invent things for itself. Should there really be variation in how we teach science, nationally?  Couldn’t we get some economies of sales by sharing curricula, teacher training and lesson plans. There should be no difference in bioscience training in California vs. Arkansas vs. Massachusetts.

Collectively, working together, these types of tools can be put forward.

We absolutely need a national test, to provide a level playing field, to ensure that our students are actually meeting the standard and can go on to science.

It’s not about graduating from high school and getting a good job, but graduating to a  college program, whether that’s an associates or a four-year degree. You cannot enter biosciences right out of high school anymore.

The other thing that’s important is the fact that the biotech jobs in highest demand require very specialized skill sets….either the type of knowledge base or regulatory requirements are specialized, such as clinical trial manufacturing.  We need kids who understand the choices early on, so that they know why they’ll need to pursue more specialized programs.

PhM – Any models from outside of the US?

MH –  Well, you’re dealing with very different education systems. A lot of Battelle researchers have studied education in Finland, where only the best and brightest get to teach….they learn how to teach, not in a narrow perspective, but based on education research. However, I don’t think you can hijack the Finnish system and bring it in to the U.S.

McKinsey did a very interesting study comparing 25 nations’ educational systems to find common denominators of success. We have to put those into an American vernacular. A lot comes down to the teacher….but a teacher needs tools and a context in which to operate.  We need to make sure there is real accountability there….we need standards and tests that measure teacher performance.

PhM – Won’t teacher salaries have to increase?

MH – You can’t measure the worth of a career without understanding what it pays.  We may need to think about new approaches. Today, former Governor Hunt discussed differential pay for science and math teachers. As a nation, we have to deal with this.

PhM – How about long-term change----isn’t science education in the U.S. a multilayered problem, involving perception of lower prestige and pay for science and engineering compared to other fields?

MH – A big part of it is that kids are not exposed to the excitement of what science is about. In Connecticut, we have special effort called Connecticut Career Choices, that demonstrates what is possible.

When you show kids how sciences can be applied in a problem solving sort of way, with teams developing innovative business concepts, competing with peers around ideas such as green companies or gaming companies, then science comes alive and kids can develop a passion for it.

Ultimately, I don’t think people pursue careers simply for money.  There has to be an underlying passion that also happens and then the money comes because you excel at what you’re doing.

That passion is not there.  Too many devices and games come prepackaged.  If you ask kids whether they want to learn the technology behind what they’re playing, they usually respond, “No, I just want to play it.  Leave me alone.”

I think we have to create inquiry based learning within the high school curriculum and the classroom. Teaching by lecturing will not work.

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