Biomedical program at Bel Air High takes students from classroom to real world

Bel Air High biomed students learn real-world skills

Students who participate in the Biomedical Sciences Program at Bel Air High School – as well as those who have completed it – have not only learned the principles of human biology and laboratory science, but how to apply them and develop products, processes and programs that have real-world implications.

"We don't say, 'Experiment on this,' " Josh Clemmer, biomedical sciences lead teacher and chair of the school's science department, explained during a recent visit to the school. "We say, 'On what can you experiment?' They come up with some pretty cool experiments, some pretty cool ideas."

The Biomedical Sciences Program is based on a curriculum developed by Project Lead The Way, a nonprofit organization promoting STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – education in elementary, middle and high schools around the country.

Biomedical Sciences was adopted at Bel Air High School during the 2007-08 school year.

Erica Harris, an assistant principal at Bel Air and coordinator of the Biomedical Science Program, said students go through the program for all four years, and 72 slots are open each year for incoming ninth graders.

There are 240 to 250 students in the program overall, she said. Prospective students in the middle schools feeding Bel Air High apply during eighth grade.

"We're looking for students who are prepared for rigorous course work and have an interest in the subject," Harris said.

Biomedical Sciences is not a magnet program that students throughout Harford County can attend. Rather, it is known as a "signature program," which are open to students in the attendance areas of the high schools where the programs are based.

Harris said the "complexity of the program" increases each year.

Ninth-graders start with a class in principles of biomedical sciences and then move to human body systems during their sophomore years.

Juniors study medical interventions and "investigate how to prevent, diagnose and treat disease," according to a Project Lead The Way web page on curriculum.

Seniors take part in the biomedical innovations class, in which they blend classroom learning with independent study, working with mentors at area hospitals, private-sector companies and at local military research installations such as Aberdeen Proving Ground and the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center.

Through biomedical innovations, seniors "build on the knowledge and skills gained from previous courses to design innovative solutions for the most pressing health challenges of the 21st century," according to the PLTW web page.

"It helps that they're self-directed, because it really, truly is a teacher-facilitated, student-led course," Harris said of students who apply.

Program students take the biomedical science courses in addition to their regular course work. They also take part in interscholastic sports and extracurricular activities.

"They are really, fully immersed as Bel Air High School students," Harris explained.

From personal experience

Senior Judith Yurkofsky, 18, of Bel Air, said she wants to follow in her father's footsteps and become an orthopedic surgeon, and her senior project is focused on that field.

Judith is drawing on her personal experience with medicine, after she was treated for a facial injury she received playing field hockey during her junior year.

She had to wear splints on her broken face for two weeks, and she could not play sports for two months.

"They're plastic, and they're very painful," she said of the splints.

For her senior project, Judith said she wants to innovate splints that are more comfortable for patients, "so they're easier to put in the patient, and to remove them."

"My experience has helped me to work with groups, design new products and really focus on what I want to do, because I want to be a surgeon when I grow up, so the tools I'm learning here have been really inspiring to me," she said.

Clemmer, who has taught at Bel Air for 10 years and was there for the inception of Biomedical Sciences, said the program looked "good but overwhelming" when it started because there was so much involved.

"But, once you've implemented the programs and you've seen the students' successes and the projects they've produced, you could just really see the benefits of this program to the students and the school," he said.

Senior Damali Egyen-Davis, 17, of Bel Air, is doing her senior project at Real Life Prosthetics in Abingdon, where she is shadowing staffers to "try and figure out the common problems that they have and create an innovation to improve it."

Damali said staffers "have to try and pinpoint exactly what the problem is" when patients have complaints about their prosthetic devices.

While she does not have any personal experience with prosthetics, Damali she said she has been interested in science since she attended a Sally Ride Science Festival when she was in sixth grade.

Sally Ride, who died in 2012, was the first female American space shuttle astronaut. The science festivals are geared toward getting more girls interested in science, Damali explained.

"I was really interested, and I took the opportunity to apply in middle school, so when I came to high school I would have a class in that outlet," she said.

Harris said there is about a "50-50" ratio of boys to girls in biomedical sciences.

Damali said she has been encouraging her younger sister to apply for the biomedical program.

Public acknowledgment

The Bel Air program has been honored by the Maryland State Department of Education. It has a presence online through its YouTube channel, "BAHS Biomed," and the "BAHS Biomedical" Twitter page.

A group of students, teachers, administrators and graduates traveled to Washington, D.C. in early February to make a presentation about the Biomedical Sciences Program during a reception on Capitol Hill with members of Congress, to encourage them to continue to support such programs because of the benefits for career and technical education in high schools.

The presentation was put on with support from Project Lead The Way and the Association for Career and Technical Education. Bel Air has been designated as a national PLTW "model school," according to Harford County Public Schools.

Each senior must prepare a poster that shows an experiment he or she has conducted, the data recorded, the statistical analysis of that data and conclusions drawn from the analysis.

The posters will be on display in the school during the spring, and the display is open to the public. County school officials, members of the Board of Education, state education leaders and representatives of Stevenson University, of Owings Mills, which is a partner institution for the Biomedical Sciences Program, are among those who attend the annual poster display.

"Basically, it's a culmination of their four years of work, so it's a celebration of their time here," teacher Michael Burke explained, as he showed a group of seniors how to improve their displays that were already placed on walls outside a science classroom.

"This is a learning experience, so they can produce a poster that they're proud to stand in front of at the end of the year," he said.

Real-world impact

Teachers and administrators in the program noted that the solutions students have devised during their shadowing experiences have been adopted by the institutions they worked with or submitted for patents.

At University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Medical Center, a skin-to-skin contact protocol for newborns and their mothers, which has been used at other area hospitals, was adopted, the military is helping another graduate patent his laboratory innovation ideas and students have developed organizational structure charts and flow charts for local legal departments.

Kyra McPherson, a resident of Forest Hill who graduated from Bel Air in 2013, is a 20-year-old sophomore at Stevenson, where she is majoring in medical technology.

"I liked it a lot, because now, I'm in college, I'm learning things I've already experienced with the biomed program," she said, reflecting on her time in biomedical sciences at Bel Air.

McPherson turned her high school experience of being treated for cancer at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore into an internship opportunity at Hopkins during her senior year, during which she developed a way for the lab where she was working to save time and resources in cancer testing.

She was diagnosed with leukemia toward the end of her freshman year in high school and spent 28 months being treated with chemotherapy at Hopkins, McPherson said.

"It was always just intriguing to me to find out more about cancer and how they deal with it, so throughout the whole experience, I just learned a lot about the medical world," she recalled.

McPherson has been in remission for about three-and-a-half years. She said she asked to do her senior project at Hopkins, since she "missed being there, because I had made so many friends."

She worked in the Brown Lab, assisting with research on how a drug would affect leukemia cells. The experiments involved working with multiple samples, which were placed in "flat-bottomed tissue culture plates" for treatment, then transferred to "microcentrifuge tubes" to isolate and stain the cells with antibodies, and then moved to another set of round-bottomed tubes to be analyzed in a flow cytometer, according to McPherson's mentor, Dr. Allan Sison.

"I saw that we were using so many tubes and wasting so much time," McPherson said.

She suggested using a round-bottom wellplate to hold each sample that could also be employed as the cancer cells were isolated in the centrifuge, in order to eliminate the need for separate round-bottom tubes.

Sison was an instructor of oncology and pediatrics with the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine when he mentored McPherson. He is now an assistant professor of pediatric hematology-oncology at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, and an attending physician in pediatric hematology-oncology at the Texas Children's Cancer and Hematology Centers, also in Houston, according to his faculty web page.

He said in an email that he worked with McPherson to develop the new lab protocol at Hopkins.

"Not only did her protocol take less time compared to our established protocol, but it also used less supplies and reagents," Sison explained. "Most importantly, the results using her new protocol were the same as the results using our established protocol. Further, she demonstrated her protocol for our entire lab and her protocol is now included in our protocol manual."

Sison stressed that McPherson's idea was adopted "for research purposes only." It has not been used in clinical settings "and therefore had no effect on Johns Hopkins Hospital itself."

"I know that I speak for the entire lab when I say that I thoroughly enjoyed working with her, appreciated her enthusiasm and welcomed her curiosity," he continued. "Kyra is certainly a highly motivated and driven individual, and I am expecting great things from her in the future."

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