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Student immersion into the “Shark Tank”

10 May 2019

Biotechnology/Microbiology 416: Microbial Biotechnology is a course, created by Beatrice Sirakaya in conjunction with the Eberly College of Science’s Office of Digital Learning, that immerses students in an active and exciting learning experience akin to the popular television series Shark Tank.

In the course, students work in small groups that represent biotech startup companies. The aim of each group is to develop and pitch a novel value-added product in microbial biotechnology that benefits humans, animals, or the environment. Each group designs a process to produce and obtain the identified product and evaluate and implement different strategies to optimize production of that product. To add value to their product, each group creates a marketing plan by researching the market, the target audience, marketing strategies and tactics, budgeting, and metrics. Students implement their plan by setting expectations, building the team, communicating the plan, and building timelines and tasks. Each group then creates and delivers a formal presentation illustrating product utility for generating funds for product development, scale-up, and marketing from peers and investors. The last assignment is to design a marketing portfolio incorporating peer and investor feedback, obtained during the formal presentation, to secure additional funds. After each presentation, members of the class have 1 million “Biotech Bucks” at their disposal to invest in the project that they feel will have the greatest success. They are also given the chance to explain why they decided to invest the amount that they did in each startup company.

A report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers shows a wide variation between the perceived proficiency of career readiness in the workplace by students versus employers. While students think they are entering the career marketplace with the necessary skills, employers think otherwise. Sirakaya’s course interweaves these skills through the course content so that students don’t even realize they are acquiring them.

Additionally, the course brings together diverse groups across the University. It attracts students from the college’s Biotechnology, Microbiology, and Biochemistry and Molecular Biology programs. It also brings in students from the Smeal College of Business’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation (ENTI) minor to serve as consultants, and class sessions were also included at the Happy Valley LaunchBox. The aim is to expand the course to a three-credit course where students will meet weekly at the LaunchBox to regularly flex their creative muscles.

On the learning front, the course incorporates the concept of “flow,” identified by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as a mental state of operation where students performing an activity are energized, focused, and involved and immensely enjoy the experience. Research shows that students have an improved learning experience when they achieve this mental state. It uses active and problem-based learning strategies where students look at the current state of science in the world and solve real-world problems. Some of the student groups have even taken their products beyond the classroom and implemented them in the real world.

As one student commented on her learning experience in the fall of 2017: “Throughout my undergraduate years, biotechnology courses stimulated an interest in the variety of emergent possibilities for innovation in the biotech industry. In Biotech 416, I worked with team members to propose, for hypothetical investors, a startup founded to develop a new product. After weeks of research, we developed a bioluminescent tree for municipalities. The project introduced me to how biological and genetic expertise can be employed to develop technology that directly benefits humans and society. In addition, the project taught me the business side of science that is necessary when working in the bio-pharmaceutical industry.”

Sirakaya wants students to take what they learn, critically think about and analyze it, and combine and extrapolate it to something totally new. “I want them to surprise me,” she says. This course isn’t about memorization of facts. It’s about creating new and exciting opportunities that can extend not just across the college but across the University and that allow students to get really excited about science.