Biotechnology class a grand experiment at Glacier Peak High School

SNOHOMISH — The biotechnology curriculum is new; the equipment, pricey. The goals are ambitious and the motivation hits close to home.

If all goes according to plan, students in Tami Caraballo’s classroom soon will be creating molecular models for research scientists using high-tech computer software and manufacturing equipment.

Caraballo was given creative license, ample resources and marching orders to start a cutting-edge biotechnology course at Glacier Peak High School.

“It’s kind of like being in a candy story and being told, ‘Pick whatever you want but don’t get sick,’ ” she said.

Caraballo said she believes Glacier Peak will be the first high school in the state to make molecular plaster-like models for scientists.

Her students are excited.

“I can see myself in this field and this is very current,” said Victoria Crowe, 17, a senior. “It’s happening around us.”

The school district superintendent made a personal plea to Caraballo to bring cutting-edge biotechnology education to the high schools.

Superintendent Bill Mester was diagnosed with a rare form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma in October 2007, and his treatment required radiation, chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant.

“The impetus really came from Bill Mester,” Caraballo said. “He came back from a year’s leave and called me. He said, ‘The place where you work in the summer, the Hutch, we need kids down there.’ ”

Caraballo has worked parts of five summers in a teacher training program at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She also has spent parts of summers with the University of Washington human genome project and at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, where she wrote public health curriculum.

Last summer, Caraballo learned to make molecular models in the Milwaukee School of Engineering’s biomolecular modeling program.

“You don’t tell Bill Mester ‘no,’ ” she said. “He is very compelling.”

A big boost came from the nonprofit Snohomish Education Foundation, which contributed $50,000 for equipment to help get the program started.

Foundation members said they were inspired by Mester’s story. When he was well enough to return to work, Mester said that his battle with cancer rekindled a long-held interest in offering biotechnology at the high school.

Janet Kusler, a local businesswoman and member of the education foundation, said the idea to help took off from there.

“We wanted to work with the school district on special programs to enhance student learning that are typically not covered with public funds,” Kusler said. “Fundraising is never easy, but it was easy to get excited about the program.”

This isn’t your colored-marshmallows-and-toothpicks high school science class.

Last week, a $38,000 3D printer arrived at Glacier Peak. Biotechnology students will learn to use the machine to create molecular models. The Milwaukee School of Engineering will help find scientists for students to work with.

Another $5,000 in equipment, including a thermal recycler to help make DNA fingerprints, was paid for with money Caraballo won as part of a science teaching excellence award from Amgen, a biotechnology company. She won one of four awards in Washington and 34 given nationwide.

One of Caraballo’s goals is to make global health issues real, immediate and compelling to teenagers. They’ll take a molecular look at influenza, cancer, AIDS, tuberculosis and mad cow disease. They’ll also make models of one of the proteins that’s part of the swine flu virus.

“There’s a world outside of Snohomish,” Caraballo said. “I want to bust out of the confines of our little classroom to see the big picture. I never did color within the lines very well.”

That’s fine with senior Craig Eberli, 17, one of more than 60 kids in Caraballo’s two biotechnology classes. “I thought it would be an exciting class,” he said. “We get to learn about how we can prevent diseases from spreading. We can help the world.”

Tanner May, 17, a senior, said he wants to become an anesthesiologist, and a biotechnology class is a step toward his bigger goal.

“I’m just looking to finding ways to help people,” he said.

The beauty of the program is it will help both students learning skills to enter the job market right out of high school and those who are college-bound, Mester said.

“I couldn’t be happier,” he said.

Caraballo’s lessons will be bolstered by experts’ suggestions from Fred Hutchinson, the Seattle Bio Medical Research Institute and UW.

Along the way, her students earn five college credits of molecular cellular biology.

Jim Dean, the Glacier Peak principal, calls Caraballo “a real visionary.”

“For her, it’s not just about what kids need to know today,” Dean said. “She asks, ‘What do we need to give kids today so that they are ready for their lives and the jobs of tomorrow?’ ”

Open house

An open house to learn more about a new biotechnology program at Glacier Peak High School is set for 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday at the campus, 7401 144th Place SE, Snohomish.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, stevick@heraldnet.com.

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