Ann Cortina

From a Van to a Subaru: Teaching ABE Over the Past Decade
West High School
I was sold on ABE after the first year I participated because I saw its ability to interest and engage students. ... It is heartening to see them step up to the job, take on the responsibility, and see their satisfaction when they are successful.

Unique Journey to Teaching & ABE 

In the spring of 2006, Ann Cortina drove 70 miles through Los Angeles area traffic to Newbury Park, Calif., to pick up the kits for a new biotech program she was going to teach in her classroom.

“It's a good thing I had this large van because the equipment I needed to carry out the labs literally filled it,” she recalls. “The incubator was about 3-foot square and had to weigh well over 100 pounds. The thermocycler was equally huge as was the centrifuge. I asked myself, on the way home, what I was getting myself into.”

But while the first year of the program was a bit of a blur for her, Cortina clearly remembers an overwhelmingly positive response from her students. “Students were clearly engaged and very appreciative that they were able to participate in this type of real science,” she says. And that is why she continues with the Amgen Biotech Experience (ABE) some 14 years later.

A biology and biotechnology teacher at West High School in Torrance, Calif., Cortina has witnessed many changes not only in ABE but also in the underlying biotechnology over the years. She says that the labs are much more effective now than they were early on.

“In the early days, getting transformation was kind of hit and miss,” she says. “The reagents are much more robust and the protocols much more foolproof than when I first started”—which she attributes to a concerted effort to optimize the processes.

She also points out that teachers today have much more flexibility in "mixing and matching" the labs to create a program that is applicable to their classrooms, curricula, and audience. And as a bonus, “today I can fit an entire kit in my Subaru with room left over.”

A major challenge now, Cortina says, lies in integrating ABE into classrooms with new California learning plans in place that push toward uniformity across lesson planning. “This has been extremely frustrating and disappointing,” she says. “ I believe that every biology student should have the opportunity to participate in ABE.”

She has also seen such challenges more broadly in working on ABE summer training for other teachers: “As ABE has grown over the years, administering it has become increasingly complex,” she explains. “The teacher participants are a diverse group, and they have different requirements for training, implementation, and support. While flexibility is needed in order to address the diverse needs of both ABE program personnel and their teacher participants, it does add layers of complexity and thus makes it more challenging to ensure the quality of the experience.”

Although there have been changes over time, one thing has stayed consistent: the positive experiences of the students participating in ABE. “I was sold on ABE after the first year I participated because I saw its ability to interest and engage students,” Cortina says.

In the years that followed, Cortina and another West High teacher developed a biotech course to target non-honors students. “These were students who we taught in our regular bio classes and who did not evoke much enthusiasm towards continuing their education beyond high school,” she says. “We noticed that, during the ABE labs, many of these students found their niche. They had good lab skills and were able to generate better results than some of their more academically advanced peers. It is heartening to see them step up to the job, take on the responsibility, and see their satisfaction when they are successful.”