High-tech class: Students get unique biotech experience

SNELLVILLE - In a lab Wednesday, students in Jonathon Wetherington's biotechnology class added a gene to bacteria so the bacteria would produce a jellyfish gene that glows green.

This experiment wasn't taking place on a college campus. It was happening at Brookwood High School, one of seven high schools in Georgia that is offering a biotechnology class this year.

The high schools piloting the program - including Brookwood; Central Gwinnett; Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology; Peachtree Ridge; Apalachee and Winder-Barrow - are all located in the Innovation Crescent, a 13-county region spanning Atlanta to Athens that is implementing a life science work force development strategy, said Cinda Herndon-King, director of education programs at Georgia Bio.

"Eighty-five percent of the state's (life sciences) industry is in this region," Herndon-King said. "What we're trying to do is make sure we've got a pipeline of workers for those companies."

The biotechnology class is designed to reflect the growing presence of bioscience companies in Gwinnett County, said Mary Elizabeth Davis, Gwinnett County Public Schools' director of science.

"We are truly training the future work force for these cutting-edge technology jobs at internationally recognized companies," she said.

Wetherington, who has a doctorate in biological sciences, said the class combines theory and real-world application and is based upon a mastery of lab skills.

"The goal is that students have an understanding of basic lab theory and lab skills used in biotechnology," Wetherington said. "A lot of these students wouldn't see anything really like it until college."

Peter Nelson, a junior, said he decided to take the class because he's interested in studying biomedical engineering in college.

"(The class is) really good for someone like me, because it gives me experience I'll be able to use in college," he said.

Samantha Johnson, a senior who wants to go to medical school, said her Advanced Placement biology teacher suggested she take the biotechnology course this year.

"It's awesome that Brookwood decided to come up with the class," she said. "I'm happy that they came up with it so we could take it now."

While the course is helpful for preparing students interested in studying life sciences in college, it can also help students decide if they like - or don't like - the field, Wetherington said.

Herndon-King said the teachers of the biotechnology course were provided training by Gwinnett Technical College and Athens Technical College. The equipment and textbooks for the classes were purchased with funding from the Governor's Office of Workforce Development.