Biotech in a Box: Bringing science to life
John Winebarger used to look forward to when his science teacher would unpack the lab equipment loaned to her by Virginia Tech's Biotech-in-a-Box program.
"Having a chance to bring in all this college-level equipment that we would never have had access to otherwise was really cool, and it gave us an opportunity that we never would have gotten otherwise," Winebarger says, adding that the program "definitely" helped interest him in a science career.
Today, the freshman chemistry major from Gloucester, Va., actually works boxing up the DNA testing kits and other equipment that are sent to some 200 Virginia high schools through the very program that benefited him.
Kristi DeCourcy, who runs the Biotech-in-a-Box program out of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, where she is laboratory manager, says that as biotechnology becomes more prevalent, it's important for students to become familiar with it even if they do not plan to become scientists. For example, DNA evidence is used in trials with ordinary citizens on the jury, so it's important that the general public have some understanding of it.
The Biotech-in-a-Box program provides kits for four experiments. Different kits allow students to examine proteins, match DNA samples, trace the spread of disease, or detect pollutants. The kits contain items like micro-centrifuges that are too expensive for most high schools. The program also trains teachers to use the equipment in their lessons.
Created 15 years ago, Biotech-in-a-Box reaches an estimated 10,000 young students annually--a figure expected to grow by 20 percent during the next two years, thanks to a recent donation by the Virginia Biotechnology Association (VaBIO).
Sheryl Bryan is director of the Virginia Council on Advanced Technology Skills, which selected Biotech in a Box as one of the programs to get a VaBIO donation. "Our primary objective is to help build a pipeline [of scientists] and to educate the upcoming workforce," she explains. "And what better way to do that than through technology?"
Heather Skeens, a science teacher at Christiansburg High School, said Biotech-in-a-Box trainers have been a great help to her. "Being in the classroom all the time, we aren't always on top of how quickly the technology changes. They are, and they are very helpful."
The experiments Biotech-in-a-Box make possible often illustrate concepts that are hard to fully understand from books alone, Skeens says. Kathryn Conrad, a junior at Faith Christian School, in Roanoke, Va., agrees.
"You get so much out of a book, but when you touch the things with your hands and you handle them yourself, it really brings things to life," she says.
Conrad's science teacher, Missy Reed, believes Biotech-in-a-Box gives her students an advantage.
"They are a step ahead of students who haven't been able to touch this equipment. They know the language. They know how to do the techniques. And I feel that I've prepared them."
Reed is one of numerous teachers who have relied on Biotech-in-a-Box for more than a decade.
"If I didn't have the availability of Biotech-in-a-Box, I would have big holes in my curriculum," she says.
This story first appeared in the spring 2009 issue of Virginia Tech Magazine.