May 31, 2011

Daviess County third- and fourth-graders learned plants play a critical role in nature and science during The Budding Biotech Program.

Owensboro is home to several biotechnology industries including Kentucky Bioprocessing and Owensboro Cancer Research Program which use tobacco to make vaccines, and Owensboro Grain Company, which produces biodiesel from soybeans. Daviess County Extension Master Gardeners Larry Lowing and Bill Tyler, along with Kathy Olson and Natalie Mountjoy from the Owensboro Museum of Science and History, started The Budding Biotech Program as a way to help area young people gain a better understanding of the biotech industries in their community and develop an appreciation-- and perhaps career aspirations-- for science or medical industries.

Co-sponsored by the West Kentucky Botanical Garden and the Owensboro Museum of Science and History, program organizers have received two, one-year grants from Owensboro Medical Health System.

“There’s really a biotechnology hamlet here in Owensboro,” said Lowing, who also is a retired health professor from Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania. “Things are happening here that aren’t happening elsewhere. It’s fascinating to see what’s happening in Owensboro that makes this city special.”

The Budding Biotech Program is held twice a year. Third-grade students join the program in the spring and return as fourth-graders in the fall. During the sessions at the West Kentucky Botanical Garden, students learn about photosynthesis, plants’ life cycles and how local companies produce vaccines from plants from volunteers who include several Daviess County Extension Master Gardeners. At the garden, they are also able to plant seeds and with the help from the Audubon Society instructors, view birds through binoculars.

The second part of the program takes the students to the Owensboro Museum of Science and History where they learn about plant cells, microscopy and DNA.

Annette Heisdorffer, the county’s horticulture agent for the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service, has been supportive of the program and helped get it off the ground. The Master Gardener program is offered by the UK Cooperative Extension Service for individuals interested in gaining knowledge and experience in horticulture. In exchange, Master Gardeners volunteer their time educating others in programs like The Budding Biotech about horticulture.

“This program educates today’s youth about agriculture and horticulture and makes the connection between those fields and biotechnology and medicine,” Heisdorffer said.

In the 1.5 years since its inception, Lowing estimated the program has reached 3,000 students at the 17 city, county and Catholic elementary schools.

Pre-and post-testing of the students showed the program is increasing their interest and literacy in health and science. Since the program began, 71 percent of the students showed improvements in science literacy. The post test indicated that 32 percent had a greater interest in health and 54 percent had an increased interest in science.