Chesley Bonestell, “The Exploration of Mars” (1953), oil on board, 143/8 x 28 inches, gift of William Estler, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Reproduced courtesy of Bonestell LLC.

Needed: A Vision and Strategy for Biotech Education


A Great Bioeconomy for the Great Lakes
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It is consistently true that as new career fields and business centers arrive, a portion of the population is left on the sidelines. This holds especially true in the biotechnology, medical technology, genomics, and synthetic biology investments we see today. Urban centers, which often have a high concentration of university graduates, are primed for success in the emerging bioeconomy. But even there, career and educational opportunities are often out of reach for young women and people of color. In rural communities and in regions that have traditionally supported fishing, forestry, farming, and mining, all residents are less likely to track into careers in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics.

In “A Great Bioeconomy for the Great Lakes” (Issues, Winter 2024), Devin Camenares, Sakti Subramanian, and Eric Petersen report on some targeted and hyperlocal interventions that stimulated a bioinnovation community in the Midwest and Great Lakes areas. They found that connecting students in regional high schools and local colleges with experts in industry and community labs increased the students’ appetites for further involvement. What a boon for the educators and young innovators who successfully discovered this opportunity.

In our work through the BioBuilder Educational Foundation, we can attest to the need for deliberate actions to overcome specific regional obstacles. Since 2019, BioBuilder has been engaged with high schools in East Tennessee. After several years laying a foundation in this rural region, BioBuilder is now integrated every year into biology classes in secondary schools spanning several counties. It is also integrated into some of the region’s BioSTEM pathways that Tennessee uses to bring early-college access and relevant work experience into career and technical education classrooms statewide. BioBuilder has built partnerships with local and federal funders to expand this work, and the success has spurred a much larger set of activities in the region, including post-secondary tracks at East Tennessee State University and local business opportunities such as the development of the Valleybrook Research Campus.

It must be recognized, however, that such hyperlocal approaches to building bioeconomies is not an ultimate solution. Regional approaches must be complemented with systemic educational change if the nation is to achieve the “holistic, decentralized, and integrated bioeconomy” that Camenares, Subramanian, and Petersen aim for.

Regional approaches must be complemented with systemic educational change if the nation is to achieve the “holistic, decentralized, and integrated bioeconomy” that Camenares, Subramanian, and Petersen aim for.

The K–12 public school system in the United States is an underutilized lever of change in this regard. With over 3 million students graduating each year, the nation is failing our children and collective future by not offering an on-ramp to sophisticated job sectors without the need for higher education. Public schools fulfilled the nation’s workforce needs in the past, diversifying the talent pool with an equitable geographic and racial distribution. Public schools fully reflect the nation’s diversity, and high school is the last formal education received by between one-third and one-half of all residents. Public schools operate in every state and so provide an established infrastructure for engaging every community.

With respect to the emerging bioeconomy, a vision and strategy for public education is needed. And it could be simple: providing easy-to-implement content that modernizes the teaching of life science, and then millions of young people can graduate high school with enough content knowledge and skills to join the workforce, spurring development of the bioeconomy everywhere.

Founder and Executive Director

BioBuilder Educational Foundation

National Program Coordinator

BioBuilder Educational Foundation

The “one-size-fits-all” curriculum common in many regions of the United States may fall short of capitalizing on local differences when building a successful bioeconomy, argue Devin Camenares, Sakti Subramanian, and Eric Petersen. The authors highlight the extent of programmatic structure that may or may not be helpful in seeding locally specialized educational initiatives. In this model, the authors propose that the uniqueness of a region is the key to unlocking local bioeconomic growth, turning current challenges into future opportunities.

This approach has proven fruitful in the Great Lakes region and beyond. For example, Beth Conerty at the University of Illinois Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory takes advantage of its Midwest location to offer bioprocessing scale-up opportunities. Similar to the approach the authors propose, the facility couples science with educational opportunities for its students. Also, Scott Hamilton-Brehm of Southern Illinois University Carbondale founded a program called Research, Engagement, and Preparation for Students, which promotes accessibility, outreach, and communication in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The program’s strong student engagement grew into a company called Thermaquatica that converts biomass to value-added products including biostimulants and biofuels.

The uniqueness of a region is the key to unlocking local bioeconomic growth, turning current challenges into future opportunities.

Elsewhere, Ernesto Camilo Zuleta Suárez led several outreach and educational programs to prepare leaders for the future bioeconomy through the Consortium for Advanced Bioeconomy Leadership Education, based at Ohio State University. In Tennessee, the Oak Ridge Site Specific Advisory Board serves as a more policy-focused example, wherein student board members are strategically invited to take part in maintaining the local environment of the Oak Ridge Reservation, which still faces challenges from legacy wastes. Additionally, the Bredesen Center at the University of Tennessee established a strong program to teach students to incorporate outreach and public engagement into their scientific career.

Once established, these locally cultivated STEM programs can gain traction through science communication, which is an integral component in the field of synthetic biology (SynBio) and a determinative step of the scientific method. To highlight some examples, we have the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) and BioBuilder podcasts by Zeeshan Siddiqui and his team, the Mastering Science Communication course led by Larissa Markus, and the iGEM Digest authored by Hassnain Qasim Bokhari and Marissa Sumathipala. More recently, Tae Seok Moon has launched the SynBYSS: SynBio Young Speaker Series. And the Science for Georgia nonprofit hosts free science communication workshops and offers opportunities to share science with the community. Science communication not only educates the current generation but also transfers knowledge to future generations, thereby ensuring the sustainability of science.

Perhaps most important, these efforts are built on a student-centered approach designed to offer increasingly accessible means for students to participate in STEM education and related activities. The Global Open Genetic Engineering Competition and BioBuilder are already increasing accessible means for students to participate. Spurring interest and engagement in STEM, even at the middle or high school levels, can accelerate the development of career interests, especially in a field as interdisciplinary as synthetic biology. Such experiences may even spark interests beyond typical STEM careers and help catalyze a scientifically literate society. This educational proposition invites a people-focused approach as opposed to a project-focused one—the former of which is the key ingredient that will make the difference.



Cite this Article

“Needed: A Vision and Strategy for Biotech Education.” Issues in Science and Technology 40, no. 3 (Spring 2024).

Vol. XL, No. 3, Spring 2024