Biotechnology is the use of living organisms or parts of living organisms, to develop new products or processes.
THE smell of freshly baked bread fills the air of Neal Strydom’s Biotech room at Whakatane Intermediate School.
The South African-born teacher has multiple bread makers in his class and one of the first things he does with each new group of students is offer them a slice of warm bread and butter. In doing so he introduces them to one of the simplest everyday examples of biotechnology.
This is a subject the former secondary school biology teacher feels passionate about and his enthusiasm is catching. You just have to look at the faces of his students as they assume the roles of forensic scientists in a murder investigation or work at creating their own range of manuka honey-based skin products to know that this is an exciting class to be in.
It’s something different, something meaningful and something they can relate to their everyday life. It’s also something they know can lead to a multitude of career opportunities – and not just those that involve donning a white coat and working in a laboratory. The New Zealand Government has identified biotechnology as a key priority for the country’s future and jobs in the industry range from sales and marketing, to research and development, to manufacturing and quality control.
Whakatane Intermediate is one of just a handful of New Zealand intermediate schools to offer this subject as part of its wider technology programme and the students know they are lucky.
Most of them have no idea what biotech is before they start – and neither do their parents. For those unfamiliar with the term it refers to any technique that uses living organisms to tackle problems or respond to opportunities. From yoghurt making to fertilizer to plant propagation to cures for cancer, it’s a part of everyday life and has been for thousands of years.
In Mr Strydom’s class, students experience first-hand the problem-focused nature of the industry and develop an appreciation of the complex solutions - including the technical, ethical, environmental and political considerations involved. It might sound heavy stuff for 11 and 12 year olds to get their heads around but they enjoy the challenge and the relevance of what they are learning.
Last year’s Year 7 students looked at the medicinal properties of herbs and after growing their own plants they used them to make skin lotions and balms. “It was amazing how these kids really enjoyed seeing these plants grow,” he said. “It was almost like a little miracle to them. It was great to see their enthusiasm.”
He said the nice thing about this programme was that the kids got so excited about what they took home that they continued on with it.
“I know of girls who are now selling their products at craft markets. Somehow they get so involved with it that they take it a step further and market it – and it ends up as gifts under the Christmas tree or for Mothers Day.”
At year 8, the students looked at the work of Professor Peter Molan, director of the Honey Research Unit at Waikato University and the medicinal properties of honey or the Unique Manuka Factor (UMF) as it is known. After finding the best way to manage the honey they made soap, throat lozenges, lip balms and anti wrinkle cream. They went on to design logos for the products, come up with a company name and even develop a business plan.
This is a subject all students would love a second crack at and each year a small number of them get the opportunity to take part in a five-day biotech intensive.
Last year at year 7, the focus was on the biological control of possum and together they looked at the impact of these pests on New Zealand’s native bush, the cost to the country and how best to deal with the problem taking into account such things as the humaneness of the various control methods. The programme culminated with students creating a board game through which they could share their new found knowledge with classmates.
The year 8 intensive saw students solving a baby kidnapping crime through analysing finger prints, blood samples and witness statements.
It would be easy to repeat the same units but Mr Strydom makes a point of coming up with something new every year. This year students could find themselves creating bio fuels, hydroponics or studying traditional Maori medicine. With a subject this diverse, the options and the opportunities are endless.