A biotech pilot program to get students excited about STEM

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

by Charlotte Pope

Robin Bethune, a junior at Roxborough High School, is intrigued by forensics, and she is eager about a class she’s taking as part of an afterschool program being piloted in the District.

“Last class, we did a lab where we had to figure out who was at a crime scene by looking at DNA fingerprinting,” Bethune said. “I am excited to see the results.”

Bethune is one of 25 District students who are participating in a new biotechnology program launched by Philadelphia Youth Network (PYN) in partnership with the District’s 1199C Training & Upgrading Fund. The program, called Quest, uses lectures and lab-based research to help students gain skills in science, technology, engineering, and math — also known as the STEM fields.

PYN and District 1199C set the curriculum for the pilot project and oversee its implementation, but Quest is managed by the Philadelphia Academies and funded by the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline and the Philadelphia Foundation.

The afterschool program, which debuted in January, includes students from Roxborough and Lincoln high schools. Students in Quest were recommended by their teachers based on prerequisite coursework and good academic standing in math and science. Roxborough and Lincoln were chosen to pilot the project because both schools are working with the Philadelphia Academies to plan future career academies focusing on STEM.

The 20-week program runs through May 20 and includes two hours per week of afterschool enrichment classes for students at their respective schools. Topics of study include genes and genomes, animal and plant biotechnology, molecular diagnostic pathology, drug discovery, and pharmacogenomics. Students who are enrolled in the master’s degree program at Thomas Jefferson University serve as mentors to the high school students and also attend the weekly sessions.

On the last Thursday of each month, the student participants travel to a Thomas Jefferson University laboratory, where they conduct experiments and get an inside look at different health-care options.

“We hope to see students gain a new understanding of science and math, where they will be eligible upon graduation to academically pursue college and enter science and math professions," said Cheryl Feldman, executive director of District 1199C Training & Upgrading Fund.

“We want to expose youth to more than just the typical health-care professions, not just doctors or nurses. So project-based, hands-on learning is a wonderful way to introduce students to career opportunities, and what we have is a pretty comprehensive experience,” she said.

At the end of the program, students from both schools will make presentations to parents, fellow students, and supporters of Quest about the research projects they complete with their graduate student mentors. In June, they will travel to Washington, D.C., where they expect to meet with legislators and policymakers in biotechnology.

The program will conclude with a paid summer internship organized in partnership with the University City Science Center, an urban research park that supports technology commercialization and technology-based economic development.

Feldman said she hopes that the program will eventually be embedded in the School District as an ongoing initiative.

That’s something that Bethune said she would like to see happen, too.

Biotech is an up-and-coming field in Philadelphia, she said. "I plan to get an understanding of what it is, and find something in the field where I might want to spend my future.”

Charlotte Pope is an intern at the Notebook.