The Paly science department will introduce a new biotechnology course next school year, prompting excitement over its lab-based curriculum and opportunities for student-centered exploration.
Science teacher Elizabeth Brimhall said the class, Medical Interventions, will cover four major topics: fighting infection, genetic screening, conquering cancer and surviving organ failures. It will be available to rising juniors and seniors, and students enrolled in the class can earn either honors or college prep credit.
The inspiration for the course, according to Brimhall, came from a biotechnology class Paly offered several years ago.
“We used to have a similar course that a former teacher here created, and he made it really interesting,” Brimhall said. “But then when he had to move away, we lost the course for a while.”
However, using new curriculum provided by the science department’s partnership with Project Lead The Way, Brimhall said she is looking forward to providing students with an engaging, useful class.
“PLTW has a pathway called principles of biomedical science, and we brought some of those units and activities into the Biology classes that our ninth graders take,” Brimhall said. “It’s a really nice curriculum to use for biotech, and we want to help students go more into depth.”
The PLTW curriculum provides a variety of benefits to the new class. By focusing the class on case studies and projects, students can see how their learning is directly applicable to the real world.
According to PLTW, the curriculum “centers on hands-on, real-world activities, projects and problems that help students understand how the knowledge and skills they develop in the classroom may be applied in everyday life.”
Brimhall, who worked in a Stanford University biochemistry lab as an undergraduate, said she hopes to combine her personal expertise and connections at Stanford with the PLTW groundwork to create a course that is rich in activities and guest speakers, and can help prepare students to tackle advanced biomedical issues.
“We will read what current researchers are doing, and I’m going to try and get some current researchers in as speakers,” Brimhall said. “And we’ll be doing labs similar to some very current things that are happening using similar biotech tools that most researchers will use today, so it’ll be a good exploration of the toolbox of a typical researcher.”
Junior Neel Fulton said he is especially interested in the cutting-edge element of the class and the field of biotechnology in general.
“Biotechnology is a field which leads to a lot of advances in medicine, so it would be interesting to cover the ways that we are improving biological processes through the use of new technology,” Fulton said.
Medical Interventions will also feature in-depth, student-driven research projects.
“At the end of each major unit, there will be an open-ended student project where students get to explore their own interests using some of the biochemistry and biotechnology that we’ve been studying,” Brimhall said.
Some students expressed concern that, given the already wide selection of advanced science courses offered by Paly, Medical Interventions might not be able to properly differentiate itself. However, according to Fulton, the class will operate in a fundamentally different way from other high-level science classes.
“Initially I was a bit skeptical,” Fulton said. “But if the course is lab-based with research and speakers, it seems like it will be different from courses like AP Biology.”
In fact, the course occupies a niche within the science selections offered by Paly, providing an option for students interested in both biotechnology and medicine.
“If you are a rising junior or senior at Paly interested in medicine, you have plenty of options in courses like AP Biology, AP Chemistry, Anatomy and Physiology,” Brimhall said. “But Medical Interventions is the only course specifically about biotechnology, so the fundamental difference, setting aside the student-centered element, is the material.”
Sophomore Cole Sturino said the class has the potential to be a valuable way to delve into the topic of biotechnology.
“The course is really interesting because there are not really any other opportunities to learn about biotechnology at a high school level,” Sturino said. “I feel like, by taking the course, I would get a far better understanding of the scientific research and the nuances of disease and genetics.”