Pace High School (PHS) Biotech Academy celebrated its ribbon cutting ceremony Wednesday, March 5, with swirling beakers of colored liquid, an incubator growing E. coli, (the harmless kind), a sterilizing autoclave, a fume hood sterilizing the air over several Petri dishes, an orbital shaker heating and stirring, a plate reader to identify what's in an inserted Petri dish, and more. Attendees of the event may not have known what all these machines were about, but thanks to the Biotech Academy, the participating students were able to expound. Students in white lab coats eagerly and professionally demonstrated the apparatuses to parents, school administrators, and other guests. It was standing room only. The students encouraged onlookers to take part in measuring precise amounts of powders on a balance, and drawing liquids with a micropipette.
Greg Gill, biology teacher for the two year academy, said the purpose is two-fold. He said the program provides cutting edge technology and vocational skills. Students, he said, get a modern science education and upon passing the final exam, receive certification as lab assistants. He said students can "leave Pace with a diploma and a skill." Standing before a whiteboard with a list of labs scheduled for the program, Gill said each year has roughly 50 labs. He also said the multi-day labs last between three and seven days. He contrasted the program to a regular science class, saying the Biotech Academy has students in labs for 85 percent to 90 percent of class time.
Alec Hankins, PHS junior, was one of the tour guides. He had a working knowledge of every piece of lab equipment. Hankins said, "Everything we do is extremely precise." He said the academy is new and innovating. "It's the future of modern science,” he said, adding, "It’s really advanced for high school." Hankins said he doesn't know what he wants for a career after high school, but he’s always been interested in science.
Hunter Channell, PHS senior, said since he's only able to complete one year of the program, he's ineligible to become a certified assistant. He said he entered the academy because it seemed fun and he would be working in the lab more often than a normal science class.
Allen Dao, junior, said he was interested in organ growth and fighting cancer. He said the closest program similar to the academy is in Gainesville.
Christian Kotler, sophomore, said he signed up for the academy as soon as he heard about it. He said he is interested in agricultural science, specifically the Roundup Ready Soybean, a soybean resistant to the weed killer Roundup.
Tim Wyrosdick, Santa Rosa County school district superintendent, said the academy is able to "tie the real world of work to instruction."
Gill said Steve Knowlton, assistant principal, was the "brains behind the operation." Knowlton said he came into his position four years ago. He said with his own "pre med" background and Gill's background teaching biology, it was a natural fit that they start this program. Speaking about Gill, Knowlton said the person in charge makes the program. He said once the community bought into the program, it exploded. He said the program would not have come to be without student interest and the right teacher to oversee it. Knowlton said the "real world experience kids can get is the difference between this [program] and a class." Knowlton said he is looking into future academies in forensics, agriculture, and computer art and design. He said the things an academy needs are student interest, the right teacher, and the finances.