To solve a murder, they mashed strawberries and mushed bananas.
Students in Frenchtown’s new, two-semester biomedical science program had collected evidence from a fake crime scene, processed fingerprints, analyzed blood splatter, studied hair underneath a microscope and conducted blood typing on two suspects. Next, students would learn how to isolate DNA from organic samples, a real-life skill to solve an imaginary crime.
Lily Apedaile’s class is one of six new health science programs launched in Montana schools this fall, with another three districts talking about adding classes in the spring. Bozeman was the first district to offer science courses rooted in health careers to high school students in 2009.
Today, 31 high schools have added programs to their curricula, ranging from single-year exploratory classes of general principles to an intensive four-year academy. In some cases, teens can graduate high school with professional certifications as EMTs, phlebotomists, pharmacy technicians, or nursing assistants.
On Thursday, Frenchtown senior Kylie Habeck placed a strawberry in a plastic bag and began crushing it between her fingers. Her lab partner, junior Brittney Marcure, prepped a paper cup and coffee liner to filter the fruit paste to just its juice. With a little ethanol and an “exciting blue” extraction buffer, DNA unfurled from the cells.
“That looks cool. That looks sweet,” Marcure said. Habeck added, “That’s our DNA.”
With a popsicle stick, Marcure scooped out the clear glob floating at the top of the test tube.
“Would it mess it up if I touched it?” she asked. Habeck urged her to find out. Marcure poked the DNA.
“Whoa,” she said. “It’s like jelly.”
Across the state, health science classes are designed to prepare students for possible careers in one of the fastest-growing sectors of the state’s economy. For years, “health care and social assistance” has employed more people than any industry in Montana, according to the Department of Labor and Industry. More than 66,400 people worked in those fields in 2016, followed in the ranking by 59,300 people in retail, 52,600 in accommodation and food services, and 47,000 in local government. In fifth place, construction employed 27,000 Montanans.
Career and technical education programs at Montana schools aim to help students explore potential jobs and learn some of the basic skills that will fast- track teens toward certificates, degrees and, ultimately, the workforce.
“What are our major workforce needs in our state? And how can we really help focus student interest, or let students explore where all the workforce needs are?” said Renee Erlandsen, the Health Science Education Specialist at Office of Public Instruction. “For health care, it doesn’t have to be in a large community. You could be in Ryegate, Libby or Troy and there’s still a need for health care providers.”
Although more districts have added health science options, it remains difficult for rural districts to do so and challenging for them to offer the kinds of bells and whistles seen in urban communities, like pricey lab equipment or job shadowing with local specialists. When teachers leave, those course offerings are likely to disappear, at least for a while. Programs in Dillon, Noxon and Plains were discontinued this year after teachers moved or retired.
Frenchtown is the smallest Montana community to adopt the hands-on, skills-focused curriculum created by Project Lead the Way, a nonprofit that leases lesson plans to schools and trains teachers to lead science, technology, engineering and math classes. The four-year program is offered in Bozeman, Billings, Missoula, Helena and Kalispell. Whitefish offers two years of courses. Frenchtown, so far, offers two semesters, but hopes to expand and to add the option for a professional certification in the future.
Many smaller schools in the state develop their own courses. Teachers connect with local health providers or take advantage of personal experiences working in labs, hospitals and therapy centers before coming to schools.
Community Medical Center in Missoula gave $2,500 to support the Frenchtown program, including the purchase of a PCR machine that will allow students to work with DNA segments to ID mutations and conduct paternity studies, among other uses.
“We want to enhance education at the ground-floor level and really be recruiting from the grassroots of our communities. Our rural locations need health care professionals even more than right here in Missoula,” said Hope Evans, a registered nurse and CMC education manager. “Really, the point of it is to show them there are so many different career options in health care beyond doctors and nurses.”
Apedaile also said her students will work on a real biomedical research project with the Stierle Lab at the University of Montana.
Recently, it became a little tougher for Montana schools to offer health science courses and other career and technical education programs.
This year, legislators cut state funding for career and technical education from $2 million to $1.5 million. It dropped to less than $1 million earlier this summer as part of triggered cuts to balance the state budget. The reductions effectively reversed a decision by the 2015 Legislature to double funding for such programs.
The majority of the money paying for career and technical education programs comes from the U.S. Department of Education in the form of Carl D. Perkins grants, which can be spent to buy equipment like microscopes, stoves or table saws. The state’s funding helped districts pay for one-time expenses, such as groceries for a culinary arts program or nails and screws for a construction skills class. Schools also have used the state funds to pay for field trips to shadow professionals at work.
“It is a little bit concerning, although I suppose we’ve made do with the $1 million before,” Erlandsen said. “It’s unfortunate because schools really were able to bring a little more excitement to their programs.”
Just a few weeks into the school year, the new Frenchtown class already won over some skeptical teens.
“I wasn’t sure if I was going to like it,” Habeck said. Now, it’s among her favorites. “We’re solving real-life problems. We’re solving a murder. It’s a fake murder, but still.”
She hopes to become a nurse. When her best friend was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in eighth grade, Habeck asked to attend trainings with her so she would know what to do if her blood sugar levels became too high or too low. At a summer camp this year, the lessons paid off when her friend started to collapse.
“I knew what to do,” she said. “By the time the nurse got there, her blood sugar was back to normal.”
Marcure said she’s been fascinated with medicine since her parents bought her an interactive picture book of the body and its functions. A couple years later, she built a small-scale model, filling it in with bones, organs and muscles. Frenchtown’s new biomedical class was a no-brainer.
“I want to be a pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon, so, like, baby hearts,” she said. “I think it’d be really cool to help someone. And at the same time, it’d be cool to mess with inside somebody’s body. I just want to save lives.”
Across the room, two students said they did not start the class expecting to become health professionals.
Last year, Senior Brock Rugg joined Health Occupations Students of America, which is similar to Future Farmers of America for teens interested in agricultural careers or Future Business Leaders of America for students who want to enter that field.
“It was fun, so I figured I’d take the class,” he said. “I’m still not sure (if I’ll work in health care), but it’s definitely cool to think about it as an option.”
Natalie Wocum, a junior, said she had never been sure what she would do after high school.
“After taking this class, I want to work in health care,” she said.