Thursday, March 13, 2003

Biotech struggles to start at PATHS

Published in the Current

Fifty years after James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA, a program offering cutting-edge biotechnology education to local high
school students is having trouble generating interest.

In August, teacher Don Berthiaume started the program, housed at the Portland Arts & Technology High School, in a room with bare walls. Since
then, he has furnished it and stocked it with his own library of texts and reference books. He also has gathered donations of equipment and supplies worth more than $16,000 from local biotech firms, but so far has attracted only one student.

Local schools may send one or two students each next year, which would be a big boost to the course.

“We have a functional lab,” Berthiaume said. It includes a bio-safety cabinet for working with materials in an uncontaminated space, DNA replication and extraction devices and machines that can create “fingerprints” from DNA that can then be used to do DNA matching.

This is not the first time Berthiaume has started such a program from scratch. Seven years ago, he was a high school biology teacher in Biddeford and began a biotech class at the vocational-technical school next door.

He had no trouble finding students then because they already knew him. He would recommend that the best students in his classes take the biotech course the following year.

For students who took the semester-long class and wanted to do more, he arranged internships with local biotech companies.

One of those students got a job with Maine Biotech Services right out of high school, and the company is paying for her to go to college at USM, Berthiaume said.

It was a great opportunity and with the high school right next door, students jumped at the chance. “I actually had a problem with enrollment – too many students,” he said.

Now, in the program’s first year at PATHS, he has but one. He has been working hard to attract students to the program, giving presentations to local school guidance counselors and science teachers.

Part of the challenge is overcoming a large number of barriers all at once. First, PATHS has never been seen as a place for top-notch academic students to find opportunities.

Second, timing is a problem. Not only are PATHS sessions two and a half hours long, but students have to be bused back and forth to the school. Students in college-prep classes can’t often miss that many classes, Berthiaume said.

He is now targeting high school seniors because they will have taken the prerequisite courses and have some flexibility to choose electives, including biotech.

Enrollment doesn’t worry at least one member of the PATHS advisory board, Kevin Sweeney, also a member of the Cape Elizabeth School Board.

“We are going to continue to support this for a while regardless of student enrollment,” Sweeney said. He recognizes the challenge of overcoming PATHS’ image as a school for special education students.

“This program puts PATHS in an entirely different place than it was,” Sweeney said.

It does, however, still target students who want to have direct experiences and have an alternative learning style, Sweeney said. Also, it takes advantage of the broad base of schools PATHS serves. No single school could fund a biotech program or attract enough students to make it work, Sweeney said.

Ellen Ross, science department head at Scarborough High School, said one student is expecting to go next year, and another may also go. Ross said biotech is an important field for future scientists to learn about.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity,” said Michael Efron, science department head at CEHS. A student or two from Cape may be looking at it for next year, he said.

A student from South Portland High School is also looking at the program, according to Linda Sturm in the SPHS guidance office.