High school science standards in California require students to learn the fundamentals of cell biology, genetics, evolution and ecology, topics that form a theoretical knowledge base supporting the applied science of biotechnology. Biotechnology is taught in many middle school and high school life science classes, including single-unit modules within a course, stand-alone elective biotechnology courses, and structured, multi-year academies that interact with local research universities and biotech companies. A model high school academy program in our region is the Sheldon High School Biotech Academy. Students in the academy take four years of biotech-related life science courses, including two community college-level courses offered by the American River College Biotechnology Program.
Students at all levels are interested in how we can use our knowledge of the natural world to meet challenges in health care, agriculture and environmental sustainability. Hot topics for classroom discussion in the arena of medical biotechnology include regenerative medicine, personal genomics and drug discovery. Other areas of active inquiry and discussion are agricultural biotechnology, nanobiotechnology and renewable energy. In particular, food security and managing global energy needs in the face of dwindling natural resources and climate instability (biofuels, bioenergy crops, drought-tolerant/water-use efficient (WUE) crops, nitrogen-use efficient (NUE) crops, etc.) pose big challenges. Society needs young scientists and engineers to start mulling over solutions to these challenges and planning for careers in STEM (White House National Bioeconomy Blueprint, 2012).
In regions with a high concentration of biotechnology companies and research universities, there are typically many opportunities for local schools to engage with academic and industry scientists working in biotech. For example, to keep Northern California K–14 students and teachers up to speed with the latest biotech advances, we've established the BioTech SYSTEM consortium, which brings together colleges, universities, biotech industry partners and school districts. One of our primary goals is to ensure that students know about training programs and career opportunities in our region's biotech community. The main outreach activity of BioTech SYSTEM is the Teen Biotech Challenge web design competition for high school students, which encourages students to explore current topics in biotechnology (ag biotech, computational & systems biotech, drug discovery & biomanufacturing, environmental biotech, nanobiotech, personal genomics & human health, and regenerative medicine), including economic and societal impacts.