Revving Up Science Education
Bristol-Myers Squibb employees prepare teachers to implement innovative science curriculum.
Kim Saulnier (left), a science teacher at Freehold Regional High School in New Jersey, works with Kaitlyn Golden, a teacher in the North Bergen School District, at the RxeSEARCH Summer Institute.
Bristol-Myers Squibb scientist Paul M. and the high school science teachers at his lab table assembled the balls and spokes of their molecular modeling kits to show the sequence of chemical reactions in the synthesis of aspirin.
“There’s your benzene ring,” says Paul, holding up the distinctive circle of six carbon atoms that forms at one point in the process.
“Ah, yes, the benzene ring,” says Susan Twidle of Freehold Regional High School in New Jersey. Twidle and her fellow teachers had already learned how German scientist Freidrich von Kekule finally solved the structure of the benzene molecule in 1890 by dozing in a chair and dreaming of a serpent eating its own tail. The message: Creativity and innovation may not appear on the Periodic Table, but they, too, are key elements in chemistry and drug discovery.
Paul was one of more than two dozen Bristol-Myers Squibb scientists who recently shared their scientific knowledge – as well as some workplace wisdom – with a group of 17 New Jersey and New York high school teachers preparing to implement RxeSEARCH: An Educational Journey, an innovative curriculum designed to teach how medicines are made and make scientific study more interesting for young learners.
An unfolding story of a fictitious epidemic drives the curriculum. Some lessons involve hands-on lab activities that build understanding of chemistry and biology. Others give students a glimpse into the complex world of drug discovery and development – and the many careers in the biopharmaceutical industry – as they shepherd their potential cures from initial research and discovery, to simulated clinical trials, the regulatory process and finally commercialization.
Created in 2005 by Bristol-Myers Squibb and educators in New Jersey and New York, RxeSEARCH is now offered to schools through the Smithsonian Institution’s National Science Resources Center. More than 75 high schools, middle schools and community colleges in six states and the District of Columbia have so far used it.
Bristol-Myers Squibb sponsors participating high schools near its facilities in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts. The company also continues to play a leading role in training teachers how to implement RxeSEARCH by helping present an annual, week-long training program known as the Summer Institute, which this year took place at the Bristol-Myers Squibb Center for Teaching and Learning at Rider University in Lawrenceville, New Jersey.
This year’s Summer Institute introduced a new facet of the curriculum that seeks to help students work on the softer skills needed for success, not just in science but almost any career – skills such as critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, leadership and cross-cultural understanding. These “21st Century Life and Career Skills,” as they are called by the New Jersey Department of Education, recently became part of the state’s Core Curriculum Content Standards that outline what students are to learn in school, and were incorporated into RxeSEARCH.
Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Drug Development Learning and Collaboration Group took on the task of developing this new track. The group, which produces a drug development curriculum, a science lecture series and other training material for company employees, would eventfully create a 176-page Practicing Workplace Skills Teacher’s Guide – a toolkit filled with instructional material and classroom activities for teaching these career skills and connecting them to the larger RxeSEARCH program. They also produced a CD-ROM to supplement the guide.
The work was done in-house by staff members who made time between regular assignments, says Donna B., the group’s director.
“We would do it all over again,” Donna says. “It was a fun experience for the team.”
As a mother of two middle school-aged children, Donna says incorporating workplace skills lessons into the teaching of science is spot-on. Getting students to think about the kinds of skills and behaviors they need in the workplace makes them think about their own natural tendencies -- the things they like to do and that come naturally -- and then shows them how these tendencies translate into potential careers.
“If we can help children gravitate toward topics that come naturally, connect to pharmaceutical science and career options, then light bulbs might turn on for them. It helps them place themselves in the world,” she says.
A number of teachers who participated in the Summer Institute said they, too, had moments when light bulbs were turned on.
“I was struck by just how collaborative the process is,” says Susan Siegel, a science teacher from Freehold Regional High School’s Medical Science Learning Center. “A lot of people envision scientists working alone in a lab. I don’t think kids know there’s so much collaboration with other scientists and groups in the company.”
Kaitlyn Golden, a recent graduate of Princeton University’s Teacher Preparation Program who is about to embark her on her first year as a teacher, said the participating Bristol-Myers Squibb employees gave her a new appreciation for the wide range of careers involved in the different stages of drug development.
“One of the things I saw was that not everyone in the industry is a scientist,” Golden says. “That helps to make a real world connection for students, not just for the kids who want to study medicine or science, but everyone in the class.”