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Creating a High School Incubator in Biofuels Development from Lab Technique to Grant Writing—Sounds Impossible? See C2B’s Project in Green County, New York.

Education, grants, K-12 Activities, New York, Process, R & D Focus, Teacher Resources
July 22, 2011

by Joanne Ivancic (Advanced Biofuels USA)  “We’ll share information about educational materials and projects as we hear about them.  If you have developed teaching materials or projects about biofuels and advanced biofuels that you are willing to share, please contact us.”

That request appears in each Advanced Biofuels USA newsletter.  The contribution received from Dr. Larry Cosenza of New York’s C2Biotechnologies is extraordinary, not only as an innovative approach to developing high school students ready to hit a biotech lab running upon graduation; but as a means to take community involvement to new levels.  And, to potentially help school districts with long-term funding; not to mention a special surprise bonus that, as often happens in science, developed from happenstance, accidents and mistakes.

Not only an idea; Cosenza did a beta test during the summer of 2010 with three paid student interns, revising and improving along the way.  Here’s his story—with “how to” materials  available online.

C2 Biotechnologies, LLC (C2B) is a small start-up typical of many biofuels-related businesses.  Started in 2006 to develop “fusion enzymes” that combine multiple activities into a single enzyme, C2B draws heavily on skills and practices in molecular biology and recombinant DNA technology.

Sounds pretty advanced for high school students; however, this experiment proved that the basic lab skills needed to accomplish the often tedious, repetitious and even boring tasks of basic laboratory work, can be performed by conscientious entry-level employees, even those still in high school.

When C2B acquired federal funding, Cosenza needed additional laboratory space.  As a parent of a high school student, he knew that the local public school wanted educational opportunities that would demonstrate how current curriculum training is applied to real world problems.  With the help of the Green County Industrial Development Agency, and a supportive high school principal, he offered the Greenville School District an opportunity to get just that in exchange for lab space for his business.

Once the 250 square foot lab was set up in the back of the Greenville High School biology classroom, C2B listed positions for two projects:

1) To design and implement experiments and analyze culture growth optimization; and

2) To perform simple DNA manipulations and protein expression studies.

Students applied; and both students and their parents were interviewed regarding the project, its requirements, his expectations and their expectations for this job. Before bringing them into the lab Cosenza wanted to make sure the students and their parents were comfortable with him, that they understood that he was screened by the school district.  He described the project and outlined what the student would go through.  He asked parents that they help enforce the idea that this was a serious commitment.  Parents also needed to understand the potential for students to get hurt and accept that risk.

Three chosen interns then attended a paid orientation with their parents.   They would work 10-20 hours/week for $11.00/hour.   Cosenza expected that they would have learned hands-on elementary lab technique during science class labs.  He hoped to be able to put what they had already learned to work.  To make the job more interesting, he also asked them to think about ideas, projects, intellectual pursuits that might be in the company’s interest to pursue. He hoped they would design and implement experiments, including manipulating DNA.

Surprises #1-6. Although all students met the stated qualifications, they did not know how to do percent solutions; did not understand the difference between milliliters and moles; did not know how to properly use a pipette. They also had less than optimal regard for safety and little appreciation for the hazardous nature of the materials they would be working with, not to mention its cost or scarcity.  Anticipated research time was devoted to filling in these initial knowledge and skill gaps.

Paperwork and Business-End Surprises. Because the students were paid employees, Cosenza had to make sure they had green cards and work permits.  He had to provide I-9 Employment Eligibility Verifications, W-4 forms; had to pay workers compensation insurance, unemployment and liability insurance; and hired a payroll service to manage the details.  And, as a requirement of federal funding, he created an Institutional Biosafety Committee to assure  the public that projects involving the use of recombinant DNA technology are performed according to National Institutes of Health guidelines.

What was learned. Instead of achieving all the project objectives (designing and implementing experiments and manipulating DNA), the students learned and practiced basic lab technique.  They learned how to use sophisticated lab equipment and understood their operating principles.  By managing a spill, they acquired an appreciation of chemical hygiene, proper safety protocols, and learned how to use Material Safety Data Sheets. They developed an understanding of essential lab practices.  Their interest in practical laboratory operation was increased as the specific results were collected and analyzed.  They learned to work collaboratively as a group, to communicate clearly and to make adjustments when a member of the team was absent.

What was achieved. Over the course of the five week internship the students’ volume and quality of work product improved.  They were able to obtain practical useful results.  They demonstrated independent thinking skills, especially when setting up DNA digestion studies and electrophoresis standards.  They got excited about their work, coming in early and wanting to stay late.   Most important, they understood the “fusion enzyme” concept and began to suggest / consider other potential applications.

And, as a result of waiting for resupply of lost reagents from the spill, the students conducted literature searches and other computer-based research, following up on an interest in bioplastics.  They identified a series of enzymes that potentially could convert  fermentation inhibitors into plastic.  Fermentation inhibitors are required to be removed from the cellulosic feedstock  after pretreatment and prior to ethanol production.   The students then devised a work plan and realized the potential “real world” application their work might have.  They then worked during the school year, after the internship, on a follow-up work study project to write a SBIR grant proposal.  With high school English faculty to review grammar, the proposal was submitted  to fund  a proof of principle, research of using enzymes on fermentation inhibitors as  building blocks to produce bio-plastics.

If this research is successful, these students may have stumbled upon a pre-treatment process that could produce bio-plastic co-products that, although made in smaller amounts, could have a higher value than the ethanol, which has been the primary focus of C2B’s research.

Taking the Concept to Another Level

Cosenza believes that this activity, a result of the high school business incubator model, makes some form of profit sharing arrangement appropriate, should the idea blossom into a successful product.

He sees the high school – business incubator model as a process that results in exit strategies for secondary school students and creates jobs by developing small business growth.

His model  is based on secondary schools providing small businesses with space for operations free of charge in exchange for training opportunities and potential downstream profit sharing arrangements for technologies commercialized on site.   The model may not work everywhere because, unlike other places which are experiencing school population explosions, the Greenville School District is anticipating school closures due to cost or low enrollment.  Cosenza believes if the high school business incubator model can be replicated the probability for revenue streams from commercialization events to flow back into the school district increases.  In fact mathematical modeling of this school business interaction suggests over time industry could support public school operational costs…the implications are dramatic. In the face of decreasing enrollment in schools, school closures, and increases in the unemployment rate, Cosenza sees the high school – business incubator model as a potential solution for consideration by local, state and national leaders.

Learning for both the students and teachers

Interviews with two of the student interns, reinforces the value of this program.

Travis Cickocki, 15 years old and a freshman at the time of the internship,  confirmed that when the internship first started they had to learn the basics of using lab equipment:  how to use it properly and safely.  They learned to go through the manuals and practiced on “little experiments.”  Soon, he said, they could work on their own small pieces of the major project with Cosenza giving them the task and watching to confirm that they could handle it on their own.  Toward the middle of the internship, he said, they started working on the project as intended.

Even with the pre-offer interviews and orientation, Travis said he really didn’t know what to expect. He said he got into it thinking it was going to be a class; but it turned out it was a real job; they were actually working on trying to get a scientific result.  Initially, he thought it had more to with the school; then realized they really were working for Cosenza, not for the school.

For someone like Travis who has always been interested in science, particularly in molecular engineering and  biology, he sees this experience as improving his chances of being able to go into science as a career.

Travis noticed another “pay off.” In science classes, learning new things was easier and faster.  He built on “having the experience of doing things instead of just reading about them.”

Work on the internship program was different, he said, because it was not pre-designed lab exercises.  This was “never-been-done before” experiments, an opportunity to actually perform experiments to see what would happen, not knowing what the results would be.

Towards the end, the three interns designed experiments as a team.  Cosenza, Travis explained, coached them “on the lines of it,” letting the students think through the problem. If they got off track, Cosenza would bring them back to the thread by asking questions.

He wishes the program could continue with more funding and more space. He would recommend it to someone who is interested in science or lab work as a career.  His only regret was that as a freshman when school started up again, he had less flexibility and was unable to participate in the grant writing project.

Seventeen year old Steven Nevins echoed Travis’ sentiments.  He appreciated having real work experience to put on a resume.  He didn’t think that they would be working directly with Cosenza as much as they did, not only during the paid summer internship, but also after school working on the grant application.  And he also contrasted the real-world application to the contrived learning in a classroom.  And valued the one-on-one teaching; not just being expected to follow step-by-step instructions on their own.   He explained that Cosenza would tell them, then show them, then have each intern demonstrate the technique.  As they got more proficient, they worked more on their own.

Adding to the internship the experience of learning how to write a technical paper, to work on improving how they communicated their ideas.  Steve learned these writing the background information for the grant application.

Writing an SBIR grant application was not in the original plan.  Cosenza had hoped that the students would think about ideas and projects that could grow out of the work they were doing.  But this was beyond his expectations.  As Steve explained, the students had an interest in the idea of using residues to make bioplastics.  They found a US Department of Energy paper and talked with Cosenza about it.  Polyester synthase.  To the interns, it looked like it would work resulting in a byproduct coming out of the process they were doing; that if it worked, it would make the process cheaper.  At first, Steve said, they didn’t think it would amount to much, but as they worked on the idea, took it from an academic exercise to thinking of commercialization possibilities, they realized it could help the financial picture of the company.

Steve felt he learned more in that 6 weeks than in year-long biology classes.  In addition, they learned about the US Department of Energy and about the Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) process.

He suggests that what the school system could learn from this would be to have lab skills courses that teach lab technique, sterile technique, safety precautions and how to use tools to prepare for internships like this.  He thinks it could be more successful if students began with more background knowledge, more biology, even working with bacteria and on recombinant DNA.  He would like to see such additions to the curriculum. He also appreciated learning the language of biotechnology.

Steve understands the challenge of putting this together in other communities.  It’s possible, he believes if a community has companies willing to do this, to hire highschool students to be workers.  He suspects they might look for college students; but wants to reiterate what a good experience it can be for high school students.  And the benefit to the companies?  The students have ideas and look at things differently than adult, he notes, they are not set in their ways so might see things differently, see things that are otherwise missed.

Steve recognizes that Cosenza is a pioneer and is grateful to have Cosenza and the school “do something like this even though no one else has done it before.”

For other teachers, school administrators, companies and school districts who would like to realize the dreams of Larry Cosenza and his students in their communities, all of the materials developed for this project (from application forms to standard operating procedures to training materials) are available at no charge on the Advanced Biofuels USA web site.  Larry Cosenza and the leadership of the Greenville School District and Greenville High School are also available for consultation.   Advanced Biofuels USA is proud to include this project in our educational materials.   READ MORE

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explosion steam methane reformation steam reformation steel stevia stillage storage tanks Straight (pure) Vegetable Oil (SVO or PVO) stranded assets Strategic Bioenergy Reserve STrategiv Petroleum Reserve straw students su sub-Saharan Africa sub-sim (substantially similar) subsid succinic acid sucrose Sudan sugar sugar-to-biodiesel sugar-to-farnesane sugar-to-jetfuel Sugar Beets/Energy Beets sugarcane sugarcane prices sugarcane straw Sugar kelp sugar palm sugar platform sugar prices sugars sugars-to-fats sugar standards sulfur Sumatra sunflower sunflower stalks supercritical fluid supercritical hydrolysis supply agreements supply chain Supreme Court surahart Suriname Sustainability Swaziland Sweden sweetgum sweet potatoes Sweet sorghum swine waste Switchgrass Switzerland sycamore syngas syngas/gas fermentation synthetic biology synthetic diesel synthetic gasoline synthetic kerosene synthetic liquified gas (SLG) synthetic methane/e-methane synthetic natural gas Syria Tailoring Rule 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