Education Spotlight: Bay Area Bioscience Education Community (BABEC)
Educational communities everywhere are incorporating software tools to better prepare students for their next step. Read on to see how BABEC and Benchling help to enable careers in biotechnology.
Locally grown and responsibly sourced science education
The San Francisco Bay Area is widely known as a hub of innovation in software, biotechnology, and medicine which is largely connected to its educational infrastructure. Top-tier universities and schools attract high-caliber talent to the area and successful alumni help to maintain these institutions’ substantial funding. However, these events can lead to educational inequalities that often get overlooked. Not all communities benefit from the Bay’s reputation as a leader in science and technology. This is especially true for school systems that lack adequate resources and financial support.
Despite trying their best, teachers in these schools are unable to introduce expensive, cutting-edge equipment into the classroom. In these situations, implementing affordable alternatives is the only solution. But “low-cost” equipment doesn’t need to equal lower-quality education. This is certainly not the case for schools that work with the Bay Area Bioscience Education Community, locally known as BABEC.
Expanding BABEC across the Bay Area
BABEC is a STEM education non-profit operating alongside local school systems — from high schools to community colleges — for almost 25 years. Their mission is to increase accessibility and equity within science. BABEC started out as a grassroots initiative with high school teachers in San Mateo, but has expanded all over the Bay Area. Being a small non-profit, they depend on sponsorships and/or donations from the community. However, BABEC has flourished through a close-knit ecosystem focusing on four main competencies: technical training, biotechnology curricula, reagent manufacturing, and lab equipment rentals. These elements are crucial in their mission and how they operate today.
In the 2018-2019 school year alone, they produced ~1200 science kits for a variety of biotechnology lessons. These kits were distributed to over 228 teachers across 90 schools. BABEC estimates they’ve interacted with over 33,000 students in this timeframe. Their impact also touches on advancing diversity in science. 47% of students BABEC interacts with identify as an underrepresented minority in STEM.
Preparing the current generation to teach the next
Beyond investing in students, BABEC makes a point of investing in teachers too. They create training programs in all shapes and sizes to fit the needs of different educators. A recent teacher workshop focused on whether or not DNA is linked to a person’s race. BABEC introduced ways to use this concept in classrooms. This also gave teachers a way to do the laboratory experiments themselves.
To top it off, BABEC provides an end-to-end curriculum for each experiment. They package worksheets and resources together and make it simple for teachers to use in class. Continual development of teachers greatly impacts the quality of the instruction to their students. This also ensures that relevant and useful science is taught in these classrooms.
Turning collaborations into science equity
BABEC teamed up with eight Bay Area community colleges to prepare students for careers in the biotechnology. In this workforce development program – called the Biotechnology Supply Chain Operations Projects for Education or BioSCOPE – community college students receive hands-on manufacturing experience in the classroom. They carry out production and quality testing of reagents and materials which are packaged into BABEC’s high school science kits. BioSCOPE participants learn the entire lifecycle of the products they manufacture, from generating a reagent order to seeing consumers use them.
Dr. Ying-Tsu Loh is the Associate Director at BABEC and oversees the BioSCOPE program. She has cultivated it into what it is today. “I came onboard around five years ago as the Program Director. I had an extensive background in teaching and taught biotechnology classes at City College of San Francisco (CCSF),” said Dr. Loh. “Initially, I was motivated by the biotech education aspect, but we also manufacture reagents like a supply company. In a sense, I feel we’re like a company that supplies reagents, but a hundred times more low-key and at lower cost to our teachers.”
Creating career opportunities to keep students competitive
Community college students are also accepted into BABEC as interns in their lab. Kitty Mei, Operations Manager at BABEC, started out as an intern herself three years ago while studying at CCSF. She now trains and manages new interns and lab assistants. In addition to those duties, she develops new protocols, maintains their website, and coordinates team-building events. Dr. Loh only had great things to say about Kitty: “She knows all the modular equipment that we have, knows the inventory, and knows what’s in each bin. If there’s anything that I can’t remember I’ll just say, ‘Hey Kitty, what’s this and this?’ And she’ll tell me.”
BABEC connects students to opportunities they typically would not have access to. Their internship equips students with a working knowledge of good laboratory and manufacturing practices which is applicable to the next step in their career. Hands-on laboratory experiences are difficult to find outside of coursework and extracurricular research opportunities are more limited at these institutions. BABEC generates a direct pipeline for students to stay up-to-date and competitive.
BABEC and Benchling work together to enable science
While Dr. Loh and Kitty manage different functions at BABEC, they both use Benchling to get their work done. However, they each use it their own way at BABEC. According to Kitty, “I primarily use Benchling as an electronic lab notebook (ELN). When I first started, everything was in paper notebooks and we each had one. We also had a binder of SOPs. After we migrated to Benchling, it was nice. It keeps everything paper-free and organized. It’s helped me to manage interns by creating task lists and writing up workflows. I use the calendar function to keep track of when people do lab work. It’s perfect for snooping.”
Dr. Loh’s usage of Benchling is more extensive. “I’ve used both Benchling Notebook and Molecular Biology. In manufacturing, everything has to have a batch record. For every lot of reagents we produce, we do quality control (QC) checks to make sure the lot is working properly before aliquoting into smaller volumes. Teachers receive a specific lot number and can check the QC records on our website,” said Dr. Loh. “We keep all our batch records and notes on Benchling [Notebook]. I’ve started to use Benchling [Molecular Biology] for new experiments by looking at sequences and figuring out what primers would be best. I can’t do it for free on SnapGene, but I was able to on Benchling [which is free], so that was really nice.”
Standardizing Benchling amongst BABEC’s collaborators
Dr. Loh hopes to use Benchling to foster collaboration with their initiative BioSCOPE because each community college implements it differently. They can use it for lab practicals or build entire courses around it. For instance, Laney College (Oakland, CA) utilizes BioSCOPE to teach an entire bio-manufacturing course to simulate the processes of a manufacturing company.
“We’re part of a national grant and need best practices for BioSCOPE. Everyone wants to do it. We have our SOPs and our batch records already in Benchling. But our collaborators don’t know what Benchling is or how to use it. They want to use Google Drive but we’re trying to spread the word: ‘We don’t want Google Drive, let’s just do the Benchling thing [because it’s better for sharing data].’ ”
Using software to bridge gaps in education
Software like Benchling gives a better depiction of how biotech companies operate. It’s highly advantageous for students interested in these careers. Ensuring that students and teachers have access to cutting-edge technology is part of the solution in addressing educational inequity. Benchling and BABEC view software as a powerful alternative for all parties. Students develop practical skills they’ll use in a job. Teachers counteract the lack of funding and resources they face.
Dr. Loh agrees that educators, especially high school teachers, should think about introducing modern software – especially if it’s free. Her advice to others: “They probably want their students to write the old-fashioned way for their first year. This skill is very valuable. But next year, teach them how to use an ELN [which is used in the workforce]. That’s how you keep your classroom at the forefront of biotech education.”
Learn more about BABEC
BABEC is community-driven and a STEM education nonprofit organization. Learn more about the impact they’ve made and consider making a donation to support their ongoing work. You can even participate in our Referral Program where Benchling will donate $100 to BABEC for every referral made from now until March 2021.
Are you an organization like BABEC that’s interested in using Benchling for education or collaboration and want to learn more? Feel free to send inquiries to Johnny Truong, [email protected].