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Education Times | Vocational School Values: THE RIGHT
CHOICE CAN PUT MONEY IN YOUR POCKET

Education Through Occupation in Biotech

Innovative program in Berkeley is boosting the ranks of African Americans, Latinos and Asians in science.

May 23, 1999|MARTHA GROVES | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Christopher Lacombe played hooky for much of his sophomore year in high school and gave no thought to attending college. Now, just shy of 20, he makes at least $30,000 a year as a technician in the emerging biotechnology industry.

What caused the attitude adjustment? An innovative Bay Area program called Berkeley Biotechnology Education, which is turning on low-income high school and community college students to the idea of growing cell cultures and reading pH meters.

Without it, "I think I would be where a lot of kids end up--flipping burgers," said Lacombe, who works for Bayer Biotechnology in Berkeley.

From Vancouver to San Diego, start-ups continue to sprout along the West Coast in the world's greatest concentration of biotech companies. The rampant growth is creating a need for workers with strong entry-level skills and a solid work ethic.

Hungry for such workers itself, Bayer, a research and production facility owned by the big German pharmaceutical and chemical company, reached a development agreement in 1992 with the city of Berkeley, where it has a large multipurpose plant. The next year the company founded the program as a nonprofit corporation and established a "biotech academy" at Berkeley High School. Three years later, it began a similar program at Fremont High School in Oakland and a Bioscience Career Institute at Laney College, a community college in Oakland.

To get the program rolling, Bayer pledged $1.4 million over nine years. The program also receives funding from foundations and companies.

The high school component aims to attract juniors and seniors with little or no interest in college. Many of them come from homes that depended on public aid.

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Although a few graduates find jobs right out of high school, most go on to Laney to take four required science courses that lead to a special certificate. Students must repeat assignments until they receive at least a B in each course.

The course work trains students in the tools and techniques that are basic to the industry.

They learn, among other things, how to grow cells, how to use a centrifuge and how to separate compounds.

W. Norton Grubb, who holds the David Gardner chair in higher education at UC Berkeley, calls the school a great example of a new form of vocational education that is "carefully tied to academic underpinnings." He calls it "education through occupation."

Indeed, the students, most of them African American, Latino and Asian, get a hefty amount of hands-on experience and rigorous academic training with paid internships and co-op jobs at local biotech companies and hospitals.

The "mission is to expose [to biotechnology] students from populations that are underrepresented in science," said Amy Ryken, the group's education director and a former biology and chemistry teacher at Berkeley High.

Damian Kirkland, 23, a 1997 graduate who was one of the first to finish the program, works at a new Genentech facility in Vacaville. There, he grows genetically engineered cells that produce the pioneering biotech company's hot new drug to fight breast cancer.

"That's awesome," he said. "It's really rewarding when you think about what we're doing." The financial reward is nothing to scoff at, either: a base salary of $34,000 with a $3,000 differential for working a late shift.

Kirkland described himself as "far from a model student" in high school. At home, he said, he faced "drugs and general mayhem" and parents who didn't push him to excel at school--or even attend, for that matter.

The program, he said, "really helped me focus and rebound and gave me a career path."

Companies benefit, too, he added, because they get well-trained entry-level people who "don't have unreal expectations and have a better head on their shoulders."

About 40 employers participate in the program, getting first crack at graduates. The companies encompass the bioscience, health care and food and consumer health fields.

This year, 38 students will graduate from the high school portion of the program; of those, 28 will go on to Laney. Several of those remaining will go on to attend four-year colleges. Many of the biotech companies and research hospitals that hire the graduates help cover costs for tuition and books if the students decide to continue taking courses.

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The program decided early on to work closely with teachers as well as employers. Many teachers also spend time working at the participating biotech companies to gain an understanding of the skills students will need.

Berkeley High, in fact, reorganized its science curriculum to align more closely with real-world needs, said Rick Srigley, a former vice president of Bayer who went on to co-found Sierra BioSource Inc.

Ryken said the organization is considering several options for expansion: starting programs at junior high schools or developing links with four-year colleges; expanding beyond biotech to bioscience and health; selecting another high school; or taking the program model to another city, such as Los Angeles or San Jose.

"This field is growing," said Cheryl Franklin-Golden, the program's new executive director. "Our program provides youth an opportunity to get in on the ground floor."

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