Third annual Biotech Day event gets students excited about science
On Nov. 15, the KU Edwards Campus welcomed more than 350 Kansas City-area high school students for KUEC’s annual Biotech Day outreach event. Started in 2017, the program bridges science education from high school to a four-year degree and a successful career. Biotech Day also works to promote student interest and access to the field of biotechnology.
In just two years of existence, Biotech Day has gone from 70 students attending to 100 in 2018, to this year’s event, which filled the BEST Building Conference Center with high schoolers excited to learn about education and career opportunities in science.
Randall Logan, Ph.D., professor of practice and biotechnology program director, and Jack Treml, Ph.D., biotechnology professor of practice, co-created the Biotech Day program to give high school students a broader sense of what’s possible for their academic and professional careers.
“We made this because it was something we wished we’d had in high school,” Logan told the students during the event’s opening remarks. “You’re getting a window into what your future career could be as a research scientist. You can see how the science that you’re doing now can translate into doing things effectively for society.”
High school juniors and seniors who attend Biotech Day have the opportunity to apprentice with current KUEC biotech seniors, helping them complete research on their capstone projects. During Biotech Day, KUEC seniors presented information about their projects in hopes of recruiting a lab team from among the attendees.
Roman Tavernaro, Olathe South junior, was one of the many students in attendance on Nov. 13, and said he was excited for the learning opportunity.
“This place gives me a lot of networking opportunities, and I’m learning a lot of great stuff,” Tavernaro said.
Tavernaro mentioned that among his takeaways was the possibility of taking care of a year of college while he was still in high school, through the Edwards Campus’ Degree in 3 program. “I thought that was really interesting, and I might try to do that,” Tavernaro said, “just to get the first year of college done would be helpful for the future.”
Another element of Biotech Day was a flash science fair, for which participating high school students created poster presentations on various research topics. Jeff Radel, Ph.D., associate dean for academic & student affairs in the School of Health Professions at the KU Medical Center, was one of the judges for the science fair and said he saw strong potential in these future scientists.
“I was impressed by the quality of the student poster presentations and by their ability to sort through scientific details, identify crucial elements, and compose a hypothesis based on the evidence they’d gathered,” Radel said. “These are hallmark features of scientific inquiry, and this experience suggests to me the Kansas City region has great promise for supporting students as they explore STEM-related careers.”
Sonia Hall, Ph.D., president and C.E.O. of BioKansas, also judged the flash science fair, and spoke to the communal value of the event, and the involvement of local leaders.
“Events like Biotech Day are important for providing students an opportunity to learn about the broader scientific community in the region,” Hall said. “These events create a sense of community and demonstrate to students that we value their contributions.”
Jan Kessinger, Kansas state representative and Johnson County Education and Research Triangle board member, also noted that outside investment in educational events is vital to their ongoing success.
“Education is the greatest asset for the state of Kansas. Community involvement encourages investment in that asset and raises the level of expectation among all students,” Kessinger said. “The educational community in the Kansas City Metro has a greater economic impact than the Kansas City Royals or Kansas City Chiefs.”
L.B. Fogt, facilitator at Olathe North Medical Professions Academy, said events like Biotech Day, and her students’ experiences as apprentices in KUEC’s biotech lab, give them extra confidence even after they’ve moved on to college.
“Any experience in a lab helps them because (later) they go into it knowing that they can do it,” Fogt said. “They go into college knowing they can apply to work in a laboratory. They can jump in and say ‘Hey, I want to do this, how can I help?’”
Kristin Ramshaw, BIOengineering Academy facilitator at Olathe South High School, said the apprenticeship program not only hones students’ technical skills, but their essential, or “soft” skills, as well. “Any opportunity that they can get out of their comfort zone a little bit to meet and greet and network is hard for them, but also a great skill for them to have as well,” Ramshaw said. “Just being inspired to pursue their passion and getting to do things that not everybody gets to do helps them to stay focused and pursue that higher level of education.”
While Biotech Day is a valuable learning opportunity, Treml said he’s also happy to see high school students enthusiastic about science. “This started as a very small enterprise,” Treml said. “Being able to look at this room and see that there are so many people in the area who are interested in science, and give up a day of school to come here and be with us instead really makes me happy.”