Championing the evolving landscape of life science outreach
Tracy Wilkins knows firsthand the life-changing impact a teacher can have on a student.
As a high school sophomore, Wilkins struggled academically, especially when it came to adding columns of numbers and spelling. But a teacher looked beyond these difficulties, recognizing his potential.
“When I was in 10th grade, a teacher really saved me by interacting with the other teachers and explaining I had other abilities,” said Wilkins.
At about the same time, DuPont visited his school, bringing two tractor trailers filled with chemistry and engineering exhibits. Science also made a lasting impression.
In 1993, as the founding director of the Virginia Tech Fralin Biotechnology Center, Wilkins wanted to reimagine what science could look like for a new generation of students, just as the exhibits had done for him.
Remembering how a teacher had changed his life, Wilkins realized that by providing tools and resources to teachers, he could make science more accessible to students.
Through Virginia Tech-led workshops held for high school teachers around the commonwealth, Wilkins and colleague Dennis Dean, University Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry, discovered that many schools could not afford the equipment and supplies needed for science labs and experiments.
Wilkins recognized an opportunity to give back.
In 1994, Dean and Wilkins launched the Biotech in a Box outreach program with a DNA biotechnology kit shipped to eight schools. Kristi DeCourcy was hired as the founding program manager to build the infrastructure and develop additional kits.
As a visionary champion of scaling up life sciences research, teaching, and outreach at Virginia Tech, Wilkins, along with his wife, Sarah, now have established the Tracy and Sarah Wilkins Outreach Innovation Fund.
The $1.5 million endowment will be used to exclusively support new initiatives or instruction models as well as continuing education opportunities that expand and improve upon the mission of life-sciences outreach.
“We are extremely grateful to Sarah and Tracy Wilkins for their stalwart support to ensure the Biotech in a Box program continues to empower teachers and inspire students in classrooms across the commonwealth,” said Rob McCarley, executive director of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. “Our team is excited about developing new program kits and novel pathways to catalyze learning, which match current and emerging concepts of science curricula.”
Co-founder of the TechLab company, Wilkins has made significant contributions to society as a scientist, educator, entrepreneur, and philanthropist. He was also the 2013 recipient of Virginia Tech’s University Distinguished Achievement Award.
Today, Biotech in a Box offers five kits: protein electrophoresis, column chromatography, introduction to immunology, DNA biotechnology, and caging the blob (slime mold behavior). Free for high schools, middle schools, and community colleges in Virginia, each kit includes all supplies, equipment, and resources needed to run the experiments in the classroom.
Biotechnology and beyond
Wilkins’ vision has reached more than 420,000 students in 246 schools across the commonwealth with hands-on science experiences through Biotech in a Box. It has become Virginia Tech’s flagship life sciences outreach program.
“We need to keep science literacy and appreciation out there,” said Wilkins, who had the opportunity earlier this summer to chat with high school science teachers attending the three-day Biotech in a Box workshop, one of seven professional development workshops sponsored by the College of Science, the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, and the Academy of Data Sciences at Virginia Tech.
The Biotech in a Box workshop gave the teachers a hands-on opportunity to test all of the available kits before delivering the experiments to students in their classrooms with the added benefit of networking with other teachers. Attendees included teachers who have never used the kits as well as those who have implemented the resource in their classrooms for more than 10 years.
The participants were introduced to the Biotech in a Box loan program, learned what supplies and equipment come with each kit, and were provided the opportunity for an independent hands-on experience with each kit.
“The Biotech in a Box program provides the supplies, equipment, and resources for the various kits, but the real challenge is for the teachers to incorporate the science kits into their curriculum, their teaching spaces, the Virginia Standards of Learning, and then successfully deliver the experiments to their students,” said Sandy Hancock, program manager. “During the workshop, I was privileged to see in real time what amazing and dedicated educators they are. It was a delight to see that in the span of three days, they built a community based on Biotech in a Box, learning and supporting one another.”
High praise from teachers
Liz Dobson has been teaching science for 20 years in the Chesapeake Public School system but had never taught biology until this past semester. She was encouraged by her supervisor to attend the Virginia Tech workshops, especially with her school’s initiative to attract more students into the higher-level sciences.
“We need to grow the AP biology program so that they have that foundation going into college so they might want to pursue science fields,” she said.
Dobson said running experiments for the first time and understanding the terminology can be a bit intimidating, given that she did not major in biology or have a science background.
“The benefit of meeting with other teachers and hearing what they are doing in their classroom with their students helps a lot. I need to have someone do the lab with me first to build my confidence,” said Dobson.
Wilkins said he would like to see the Biotech in a Box program expand into other STEM areas, citing biology as the core denominator.