"They come away understanding that as long as they learn how to use the equipment, they are modeling what a real scientist actually does."
In her classroom at Rio Mesa High School in Southern California, Carrie Fong has two driving goals: first, to show her students that they can do biotechnology; and second, to motivate them to want to learn more. She has an arsenal of tools to help make that happen, including the Amgen Biotech Experience (ABE) labs.
“ABE has been really influential in making science about an experience my students remember,” Fong says. “It’s impossible to teach biotech without the labs; otherwise, I would have to just lecture about biotech, which is both really boring and also would not help them make the connections and understand that they can do it.”
Fong teaches a diverse set of students in her classes at Rio Mesa, which is both a Title 1 and an International Baccalaureate school. From her students who come in with difficulty reading at grade level to her highest achieving students, they all love biotechnology, she says. But when they start the class, many think they can’t do the work because it’s too hard.
“But then even my students who struggle most academically realize they love using a pipette,” Fong explains. “And they come away understanding that as long as they learn how to use the equipment, they are modeling what a real scientist actually does.”
Fong creates creative ways to introduce the lab equipment to her students, like a pipette design challenge where students use pipettes to make pictures with different colors. She has also actively raised money to purchase equipment through grants outside ABE.
Her work is paying off. Now in her fifth year teaching, she is increasingly hearing from former students who are at college. “Students email me that ‘we did a bacteria transformation lab in college, and it was the same one we did at Rio Mesa. I can’t believe what we did then is the same as what we’re doing now.’”
Teaching ABE has also been transformational for Fong and her teaching style. “I feel like doing the ABE labs with students has really helped me show kids in my teaching without it being so teacher focused,” she says. “I have learned to stand back and give them the training and then let them do the labs on their own to come up with answers. It’s all about the students.”
Fong got her start in teaching after getting a bachelor of science degree in ecology and then joining the AmeriCorps program, where in addition to working for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, she worked in education and outreach. It was then she realized she wanted to teach biology. With funds from AmeriCorps, she went back to school to get her teaching credentials.
She was first exposed to ABE as a student teacher and liked what she saw so much that she contacted the Los Angeles program office to get trained herself when she began full-time teaching on her own at Rio Mesa.
For Fong, seeing the process of her students becoming more aware of the biotechnology around them every day has been especially fulfilling. “Some of my students once said they were watching an episode of CSI and ‘Ms. Fong, the person on TV was using the pipette wrong; they were pushing the plunger for no reason,’” she recalls. “And I said, ‘I’m glad you noticed that.’”