NC State enters a new phase of workforce development this summer with the start of construction on the Biomanufacturing Training and Education Center (BTEC) on Centennial Campus. When the $33.5 million center opens in early 2007, it will become the nation’s largest university-based worker training center for the biopharmaceutical industry to meet current Good Manufacturing Practices standards set by the Food and Drug Administration.
BTEC is just the latest effort by NC State to meld its educational and economic development missions. From extension programs designed to help farmers and manufacturing plants improve productivity to research on K-12 instructional tactics to stimulate learning, the University has traditionally worked to produce tangible benefits to the state’s economy through its teaching.
Biotechnology ranks among the fastest-growing industries in North Carolina, with some 20,000 people employed in close to 200 companies. It’s becoming a focal point for the state’s ongoing development initiatives. Golden LEAF is financing BTEC’s construction as part of $60 million earmarked for biotech training programs. The center will play a key role in attracting new biotech plants and helping existing operations grow by providing enough trained workers for these companies, says founding director Dr. Peter Kilpatrick, who also heads the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. “This is an emerging industry in which we have a chance to be a world leader,” he says. “But we’re training only about 10 percent of the workers needed every year, which limits the state’s growth potential.”
Teaching and support labs capable of manufacturing and packaging biopharmaceuticals will make up about 60 percent of BTEC’s 91,000 square feet of space. An advisory board that includes biotech executives helped the University design the building and draw up a curriculum that will have students working with cell culture, fermentation, and purification technologies. In addition to preparing NC State engineering and applied life science students for professional positions in biotech plants, the center will provide simulated production line training to students who have taken bioprocessing classes at North Carolina community colleges. “It’s not rocket science to figure out that training will attract companies needing skilled workers,” Kilpatrick says. “We want to create economic opportunities for students in North Carolina.”
For Dr. Hiller Spires, such opportunities start long before students hit the NC State campus. In fact, she says, they start with the learning experiences students have in elementary and secondary school. Spires is the director of the William and Ida Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, where researchers develop and test new teaching and learning strategies to improve education. “We want to help all students achieve,” she says. “We’re losing an opportunity to compete economically if students are opting out of math and science classes early on. We must keep them engaged.”
Tight budgets, teacher turnover, a lack of resources in rural school districts, and the continued emphasis on test results to measure success are major challenges for North Carolina’s education system, Spires says. The Friday Institute is tackling such issues with research on preparing veteran teachers to mentor new colleagues, creating virtual and physical models to help students master complex scientific concepts like genomics, and developing engaging math lessons that encourage girls and minorities to pursue algebra and other advanced courses. “It’s important that we support educators in their efforts to cultivate creativity and innovation in the classroom,” Spires says. “It’s not only important for student success, it’s vital to our economic and social future."
Across campus, the Science House has used creative methods to boost student enthusiasm for science for 14 years. Program Director Dr. David Haase echoes Spires’ contention that students lose interest in critical subjects long before they consider career options, noting that only 200 students a year statewide express a desire to major in math or physical sciences. “Kids are natural scientists because they’re so curious, but they don’t get much of a chance to tinker in school,” says Haase.
Working with smaller school districts, which often lack experienced science teachers, Science House staff train teachers to use hands-on experiments like creating slime or measuring water quality to intrigue students about chemistry or environmental science. Vans packed with microscopes and computerized lab equipment travel North Carolina backroads so teachers can conduct even more advanced experiments. Haase says excited students sometimes stay after school to use the equipment as much as possible before it is packed up for its next destination. “The people who used to grow up to be North Carolina farmers will be our future technology workers,” he says. “We have to help them succeed early on if the state is ultimately going to have enough trained people.”