The Brave New World of Biotechnology

By Reese, Susan | Techniques, October 2004 | Go to article overview

The Brave New World of Biotechnology

Reese, Susan, Techniques

Is it the science that will save the world from starvation, or will it mean the end of the world as we know it? While some people fear genetically altered "Frankenfoods" and DNA experiments with pathogenic microorganisms that could result in worldwide epidemics, others view biotechnology as using biological organisms to make products that benefit human beings. Whatever your view, there is no denying that biotechnology is here to stay, so perhaps the most important issue is education--learning what it can do and how to use it responsibly and ethically.

Although the term biotechnology conjures up the most futuristic of images, it could be considered thousands of years old. Often defined as using and manipulating biological processes, organisms or systems in the technological solution to a problem, biotechnology might be traced back to the original plant and animal hybridizations. When Europeans first arrived in the New World, they found the people there growing a crop called maize, the domesticated form of a wild grass. Since no wild forms of the plant have been round and it can only survive if grown by humans, maize is generally considered to be a human invention. Thus, corn may be the first known example of the use of biotechnology.

Today, biotechnology is being applied not only in agriculture, but also in fields such as medicine, pharmacology, waste disposal, mining and manufacturing--and career and technical education is often the place where students are given an introduction to the brave new world of biotechnology.

A Culture for Growth

After organizations in Oklahoma, among them the Oklahoma Department of Commerce, identified biotechnology as one of the target industries for business expansion, the availability of workers trained in the field also became paramount. In 1997, a biotechnology program was formulated at Oklahoma City Community College (OKCCC) in response to the state's interest in bringing more of the industry to Oklahoma. With a $250,000 grant from the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, the school built and equipped a new biotechnology lab and hired a full-time faculty person to direct the program. Courses began in the spring of 1999.

In the summer of 1999, OKCCC held a Shoestring Biotechnology Institute for teachers in an educational model that adapts the techniques and concepts of biotechnology to the high school environment. By January of 2004 the program's recognition was growing, and OKCCC was granted $32,000 from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology (OCAST) for an OCAST Intern Partnership. The OCAST Intern Partnerships are intended to encourage students to prepare for careers in scientific and technical fields and to encourage technology transfer between the state's two-year and four-year public higher education institutions and local industry.

The OKCCC program begins with a comprehensive overview of the field in a Survey of Biotechnology course that covers ethics, current trends in biotechnology careers and research through demonstrations, seminars and field trips. Other courses include Media and Solution Preparation, Immunology, Tissue Culture Methods and Biotechnology Laboratory I and II.

Dr. Charlotte Mulvihill, the director of the OKCCC biotechnology program, says that, with 10 hours a week spent in the laboratory and only one hour a week spent in lecture, "We have turned the college model on its head."

Through a biotechnology internship, students also receive 320 hours of practical experience in an actual research setting at one of the school's affiliated corporations or in a university research facility.

Mulvihill notes that, while the emphasis is on bioscience skill standards that are used in planning the curriculum, the internships are required to prepare the students for the workplace. So even though the program is small--accepting only about six to eight students each year--it has been able to meet the demands of the local employers by producing technicians who are able to do the necessary laboratory calculations and who have the required hands-on skills. …

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