It starts with one teacher: broadening biotech training globally

Putting modern-day biotech lab equipment into the hands of youth all over the world is no small task. It requires massive coordination and iterative work to pull off. And yet, for the Amgen Biotech Experience (ABE), that work started with lone teachers. Like that saying “The journey of a thousand miles starts with one step…”, the journey to a million students begins with one teacher.

Tammy Fay, a biology teacher in the Masconomet Regional School District, remembers being one of the first teachers brought on to the ABE program in Massachusetts about 8 years ago when Harvard University began its site there. A biotech researcher by training, she fell in love with science education after realizing the lab life was not right for her and became a biology teacher.

Now as head of her department, Fay trains other teachers on how to run ABE labs. She will be sharing her vast trove of insights with other educators at the ABE annual meeting in Dublin, Ireland, later this month. The process Fay has undergone in starting with ABE in her own classroom to now training other teachers embodies the goal of the ABE annual meeting – to share best practices that will enable the program to keep effectively reaching students while also scaling up to broaden its impact.

At the annual meeting, Fay will be representing the many teachers worldwide who are part of the ABE community and also facilitating conversations among the teachers, other educators, and site administrators in attendance. Our meetings aim to bring together the key stakeholders once a year to learn from each other and hopefully chart a path forward for the program.

ABE’s current goals are ambitious, to reach 900,000 high school students by 2020. We recently expanded the program to 9 new global markets in Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong SAR, Italy, Netherlands, and Singapore, and have already reached 600,000 students worldwide. Representing a more than $25 million investment by the Amgen Foundation, the Program aims to empower teachers to provide real-world biotechnology labs to their students. Not only do the labs help train a new generation of scientists, but they also help students better understand science and its role in their daily lives.

Talk to any teacher who has set up an ABE lab and they will undoubtedly share stories of seeing the joy of their students faces when they first use a micropipette or run a gel electrophoresis. To quote Fay, she says the students become “enraptured.” Using these real-world tools is unlike anything else most of these students have experienced in a classroom lab setting. Seeing how science actually happens often awakens a scientific spark within these young minds.

ABE both supplies research-grade equipment to secondary schools and training and curriculum to the teachers to support the labs. Creating and maintaining a consistent, high-quality lab experience in so many different classrooms around the world requires an open and collaborative community of educators. The annual meetings are key to that collaboration.

At this year’s meeting in Dublin, we will cover everything from ABE partnerships with local Amgen sites and the biotech industry and local capacity-building to practical strategies for setting up ABE labs and ways to promote equity within ABE and the biosciences. We know from survey data that attendees highly value the meeting. The biggest criticisms we’ve gotten in the past are that staff want even more time to collaborate and collectively problem-solve.

For teachers like Tammy Fay, the meetings offer an opportunity to also refine and evolve the curriculum. We are always looking for ways to make our biotech labs as relevant as possible to current events, world challenges, and real-world opportunities for our youth. We are also always looking for new ways to connect with our students in the lab and beyond, and to help sites in countries that all have various educational standards and expectations. This year’s meeting is sure to provide a fertile forum for tackling all those issues and more.

The information our teachers learn and share from the meeting will only grow and evolve as they take that knowledge back to their home schools – turning just a handful of teachers into a fierce force ready to empower our students with the biotech tools and skills they need for the future.