A Real-World Lab Gives Students Hands-on STEM Experience

From left to right: Puget Sound Skills Center BioMedical Research and Global Health program students Maryan Farah, Samantha Johnson and Lul Abdinoor. Offered in collaboration with Seattle Children’s Research Institute, the course is the first-of-its kind at a Washington state Career and Technical Education school.

On the day On the Pulse visited the BioMedical Research and Global Health program at Highline Public Schools’ Puget Sound Skills Center (PSSC), the students were preparing to extract DNA from plant specimens in order to learn about a process used by scientists for studying DNA.

Instructor, Dr. Noelle Machnicki, reviewed the protocol, including a detailed description of lysis – a process the students would be using to break open the cells – and then sent them to their benches to get started.

Machnicki, a biologist with a doctorate degree, skilled educator and a member of the Science Education Department at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, was immediately drawn to the opportunity to teach the first-of-its-kind yearlong program offered in a partnership between Seattle Children’s and the PSSC.

“The program intends to create a strong foundation in biological sciences for high school juniors and seniors through extensive hands-on laboratory experience and other educational and leadership opportunities,” said Machnicki. “It provides research training beyond what a student would get in a typical high school science class.”

A first-of-its-kind partnership

Dr. Amanda Jones, director of the Science Education Department at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, collaborated with Dr. Kim Kotovic, a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) specialist to create the program and develop curriculum directly linked to the cutting-edge research done at Seattle Children’s Research Institute. The program is part of a long-term plan to build a pipeline of science education programs that spans elementary school through college.

Puget Sound Skills Center student, Quesias Fernandez, measures her specimen using a digital scale as instructor, Dr. Noelle Machnicki, observes.

“We know interactive experiences can instill in young people a lifelong passion for science while preparing them for many different career opportunities in biomedical research and health care,” said Jones. “We believe this program will serve as the basis for other similar programs, expanding STEM learning opportunities to more students throughout our communities.”

PSSC is one of 20 Career and Technical Education schools in Washington state offering high-quality, tuition-free technical and professional training. It is operated by Highline Public Schools and serves students from 22 partner high schools in Highline, Federal Way, Tukwila and Tahoma school districts. Students spend half of their school day in their home high schools, and the other half at PSSC. They earn high school and college credits in this hands-on, workplace-oriented environment.

“Our number one goal is to help students find their passion,” said David Estes, assistant director of PSSC. “With a renowned partner like Seattle Children’s, we can open student’s eyes to what working in the biomedical research field is really like.”

Putting a research lab into the classroom

Oddams Ros, 16, a junior at Highline CHOICE Academy, said the program with Seattle Children’s has inspired him to pursue a degree in biomedical research after high school.

Seattle Children’s Science Adventure Lab has been visiting PSSC since 2014 offering lab experiences to students in the nursing program, so it was natural to partner to develop the new program. Classes take place in the BioMedical lab in PSSC’s new two-story, 26,500-square-foot Health Sciences Building. Along with the BioMedical program, the new building houses a dental assistant program, nursing assistant program and the SeaMar Dental Clinic.

Oddams Ros, 16, one of 19 students enrolled in the program this year, decided to take the class because it offered him a review of the science he had already learned in his high school biology class while giving him more exposure to medical research.

“This class has really pushed me to want to pursue a degree in biomedical research after high school,” said Oddams, a junior at Highline CHOICE Academy in Burien, Washington. “Besides being more in-depth than any of my other science classes, it’s so cool getting to use the lab equipment. I feel like an actual scientist.”

The lab features state-of-the-art equipment typically seen in a professional research lab. This includes an autoclave, centrifuge, biosafety cabinets and equipment for analyzing and amplifying DNA. Machnicki recounts how one student brought his friends into class to “show off” his skills after a lesson on how to use micropipettes.

“Having access to real-world equipment is part of creating a professional research experience for students,” said Machnicki. “The partnership with Seattle Children’s makes it possible to bring this advanced level of science into the PSSC classroom.”

A solid foundation for a future in science

Federal Way High School junior, Jasprit Brar, learned more about working in a research lab on a recent field trip to Seattle Children’s Research Institute.

Because the two-and-a-half-hour periods are significantly longer than the typical 45-minute high school class, students have ample time to run an experiment, in addition to digging into lessons on emerging technologies such as gene editing, immunotherapy and regenerative medicine. The class also arranges field trips to local organizations engaged in biomedical research and hosts guest lectures with local researchers.

“I wanted to explore what it was like to work in medicine,” said Jasprit Brar, 16, a junior at Federal Way High School. “My mom works in health care and I always hear her and her friends talking about their jobs, but I wanted to experience it for myself.”

Jasprit’s school counselor initially encouraged her to sign up for the program. Even though she joined the program mid-way through the first semester, she is already happy she heeded her counselor’s advice. On a recent field trip to a lab at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, Jasprit was excited to witness the inner workings of research lab.

“We got to tour the lab and talk to scientists working there,” she said. “I found it really interesting to learn about how they organize the lab. The best part was seeing where the specimens are stored.”

A clear pathway to STEM careers

Back in the lab, the students wait their turn to use the centrifuge – a crucial step in the experiment needed to separate fragments of plant cell walls from the DNA in their test tubes. Gone are the distractions – cell phones, side conversations, laptops – that were present at the beginning of class. Every student is fully engaged in some aspect of the experiment.

Machnicki walks from table to table answering the students’ questions. With one female student, she observes how thyme may have harder cell walls than the other specimens – parsley and grass – and may result in a less “soupy” mixture when broken up. To the students gathered around the centrifuge, she shares a quick tip for determining if the test tubes are balanced in the machine: “Listen closely after you press start. It should sound smooth.”

Daniel Clark and Edward Ogu begin the experiment to extract and analyze DNA. The class provides the skills training to pursue a higher degree in STEM or apply for an entry level lab position.

She is looking forward to diving into the second semester, noting it’s been important to get to know the diverse group of students and their individual goals for the program. Over half of the students in the program are female. Many are multilingual. Their plans after high school also vary widely. While some plan to apply to a four-year or two-year college, others have mentioned they see the program as way to get the skills needed to go directly into the workforce.

“A career in research or health sciences can seem intimidating to young people because the pathway isn’t always clear,” said Machnicki. “At the end of the year, my hope is that the students can envision themselves as scientists, see science as a viable career option and have the confidence to pursue a higher degree in STEM or apply for an entry level lab position.”