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How Private Business Helps Impact Schools

Private Businesses are doing their part in contibuting to schools

In 2005, Bill Gates blasted the state of America's high schools, calling them "broken, under funded and obsolete." Gates proposes high schools that emphasize the three Rs: rigor, relevance and relationships. Such school innovation relies heavily on the surrounding business community for implementation.

Biogen Idec, a company whose research focuses on oncology, neurology and immunology, sets the standard for businesses looking to give back to their community. Their community labs for students in Cambridge, Mass., and San Diego, Calif., are models for other companies wanting to enhance the local school district's curriculum. Their community lab programs have reached out to thousands of middle and high school students, giving them a chance to work alongside some of the world's finest researchers.

Program Specifics

The program offers class visits, professional development seminars for teachers and student mentoring programs. In 2006, more than 2,238 students participated in the classes, and 106 classes visited the community lab. The program was the brain child of Biogen Idec's CEO and President Jim Mullen, who believes it's imperative for companies to help improve scientific literacy and education because of the poor performance of U.S. students on science and math tests.

Tracy Callahan, director of the community lab program, says that the program has grown even broader since its inception. "The original plan was to have one-day class visits a couple of times a week and to run some sort of summer program," she says. "What has evolved is having classes most days and an advanced two-week summer session for students who wanted to learn even more than the one-week summer program. The science project mentoring program evolved from an initial request from a teacher for mentors for her students."

A Lifelong Impact

Bringing students into a real, professional setting first captures their attention, and then the hands-on aspect of the lab activity holds it. Callahan believes that "doing" science rather than just reading about it or watching demonstrations really helps some kids understand the basic concepts better. The students get to meet real scientists and biotech professionals. Seeing scientists as real people can have a big impact on students who may have never met a scientist before.

It had an impact on Jessica Tse, a second year student at Wellesly College. She enjoyed the first-hand lab experience she obtained at the community lab and invested many hours into her work there. "The Biogen experience also taught me how to articulate and express my findings to the scientific community," she says. "It enabled me to work one-on-one with a mentor to develop a project of my own given the information I learned from school. I think that's what made it so rewarding, that I got one-on-one attention and learned the techniques well. The experience made such an impact in my life that I decided to pursue a major in biochemistry at Wellesley College."

When asked if the program is beneficial for all students or just those with a scientific bent, Callahan says, unequivocally, both! "The one-day class visits really reach all types of students, and we hope to turn on a few to science who might not have been so inclined previously," she says. "Then we run other programs for kids who are definitely more interested in science, such as the summer mentoring program."

Science Fair Help and Beyond

The Cambridge Community lab offers a science fair mentoring program, which matches Boston-area high school students with scientists who serve as mentors during the students' science fair process. According to Biogen Idec, this one-on-one relationship has culminated in state science fair presentations at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and several projects have been selected to compete at the National and International Science Fairs.

Callahan says that teacher response has been very positive and the same teachers return year after year, so each new group of students can have the experience. The science teachers themselves are not neglected. The community lab in Cambridge offers teacher workshops so they can learn about the latest biotechnology developments. In San Diego, the community lab hosts the Life Sciences Summer Institute for high school teachers, which gives teachers firsthand experience in the field and allows them to meet with both scientists and other science educators.

Catherine Sobieszczyk, a biology teacher at Somerville High School near Cambridge, Mass., loves the program. "Over one hundred students from Somerville High School have visited Biogen Idec this school year alone to receive mentoring during science fair or to complete a lab with their class," she says. "The community lab offers first rate labs and instruction that we aren't able to offer in the school setting. Tracy works with teachers and classes to make sure the standards and objectives are met. Students are exposed to current science methods and are able to get excited about science."

The Biogen Idec community lab program is one of many learning opportunities that are cropping up in communities across the nation that link businesses with local schools for the benefit of everyone involved – the students gaining real life experience and the businesses who are helping to educate and inspire future employees.

Businesses Helping Students

The following businesses are reaching out to help students in a variety of ways.

  • Intel: The Intel International Science and Engineering Fair is the largest pre-college science competition, showcasing the world's most promising young inventors and scientists as they compete for more than $3 million (U.S.) in awards and scholarships.
  • Microsoft: Microsoft offers a summer internship for Puget Sound-area junior and senior high school students. As an intern, students receive an insiders look into the world of high-tech business and professions.
  • The Ford Motor Company: Ford offers a curriculum called the Ford Partnership for Advanced Studies, a program that includes a basic introduction to the world of business, product development and manufacturing, as well as courses that deal with adapting to change, managing and marketing with data, designing for tomorrow and understanding a global economy.

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