2013-01-10 / Schools

Amgen grant allows student scientists to tackle real-world projects

By Stephanie Sumell

When Newbury Park High School senior Joseph Aspinwall enrolled in a biotechnology and research development course this September, he became part of something larger than himself.

Using professional-grade, hightech gadgetry, the 18-year-old and his classmates recently completed a project that required them to analyze the DNA of various Alaskan fish species. Their findings will be added to a communal database used by scientists across the nation.

“What we do in class doesn’t stay in class,” he said. “You realize that you’re doing something that actually matters.”

Now planning to study biotechnology or molecular biology in college, Aspinwall said he can’t wait to go to class every day.

“I love it,” he said. “This is by far the coolest stuff I’ve ever done.”

Since the Amgen Foundation gave the Conejo Schools Foundation an $85,000 grant last December, Newbury Park, Thousand Oaks and Westlake high school science students like Aspinwall continue to reap the benefits.

Split among the three schools, the funds were used to help establish new course offerings that provide students with hands-on learning opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math.

“The point is to get more kids excited about school and science,” said Cindy Goldberg, executive director of the Conejo Schools Foundation. “Some of these kids who have never been excited about science before say, ‘I wish we could be here all day long. I want to do this for the rest of my life.’”

With the help of the grant, each school has instated a college preparatory course on biotechnology and research development—a subject matter central to Amgen’s mission.

“Science education is a big thing for us,” said Scott Heimlich, senior manager of the Amgen Foundation. “We rely on a highly skilled scientific workforce to maintain our competitiveness to be innovative.”

Whether they have science-related ambitions or not, all students can benefit from these courses Heimlich said. “It’s not just about careers. We want to help them become scientifically literate.”

Kristi Hronek, Westlake High School’s science chair, said the grant offers students opportunities they didn’t have before.

“At Westlake we want our students to be taking four years of science,” she said. “This course is another opportunity for our college preparatory students to enjoy something cool and different.”

Darin Erickson’s grant-funded biotechnology, research and development class at WHS has 33 students—five students short of maximum class capacity.

“There’s definitely an interest there,” Hronek said.

Students are currently working on a project in which they pretend to buy stock from a biotechnology company like Amgen.

“They’re not just learning about the lab exercises a biotechnology company might do. They’re learning about the law and business behind a company,” Hronek said.

Colleen Malone, a teacher at Newbury Park High School for eight years, said her research and development class just wrapped up a project involving the Coastal Marine Biolabs in Ventura.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the program gives students the opportunity to help build a digital genetic registry of animal species around the planet.

Newbury Park students were required to use a DNA barcoding system to classify different species of fish before entering them into a larger database of species.

“It’s a lesson in biodiversity,” the teacher said. “The Amgen grant allowed us to buy the equipment needed to start the course. We spend time during the beginning practicing technical skills needed in the biotech field. ”

TOHS biotech teacher Nikki Malhotra said her scientific research course provides students with a crossover between multiple subjects.

“They’re learning chemistry, biology and math, all in the same class,” she said.

After a few weeks of instruction, students develop their own inquiry-based science research projects—all of which are entered in the Ventura County Science Fair.

“They love it,” Malhotra said. “One of the (students) is trying to detect different toxins and carcinogens that are normally found in either drugs or food products.”

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