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student_science.jpg Back in high school, there was always that one smart aleck in the back row of class who would ask - “So how is this going to help me get a real job?”

Well, last week I heard about a new program that may help address this. Through a series of lessons, high school students are given a crash course into what the pharmaceutical R&D process is really like -- and see how their class work can translate into a career.

In the first lesson, students are told that there’s been an infectious disease outbreak in the school. They are then taken through the R&D process -- from understanding the impact this mysterious disease has on people to learning how researchers identify drug targets and screen for molecules that could be a “magic bullet.”

My colleague Mark Krajnak attended one of the teacher training programs this summer, and found that the teachers got it:

They told me that they were very excited about what they've been learning and couldn't wait to begin teaching it to their students as soon as possible. What I heard most was that this type of "applied learning" is great because it answers the typical student question of "Why do we have to learn this?"

As this initiative -- which is called RxESearch -- is rolled out at some select high schools this year, I'm sure we'll hear if it lives up to expectations. There has already been a fair amount written in some local New Jersey papers, including the Star Ledger the Times of Trenton and in Pharmaceutical Executive that explain more about how BMS came up with the concept, how PhRMA is now managing it and how it is sponsored by a bunch of health care companies including Johnson & Johnson and so on and so forth.

One point that wasn’t made often enough, though, was how these kinds of programs and approaches can help close the so-called “science gap.” For years, there has been a great deal said about how US students lag behind those in other industrialized nations. According to a recent report by the National Science Foundation:

U.S. and internationally comparable achievement data result in a mixed report card for the United States. Although performance on assessments of mathematics and science achievement by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has improved since the 1970s, few students are attaining levels deemed Proficient or Advanced by a national panel of experts, and the performance of U.S. students continues to rank substantially below that of students in a number of other, mostly Asian, countries. This cross-national achievement gap appears to widen as students progress through school.

Fewer “proficient” or “advanced” students mean that fewer people will enter careers in science and technology -- at least in the U.S. That's not good news for science based companies like Johnson & Johnson, or for states like New Jersey, the so-called “medicine chest of the nation,” which employees more than 65,000 people in life sciences.

That's where applied learning programs like this one come in. By understanding the importance of what they are learning and how it can be applied to the real world, kids stay interested, learn more -- and may end up pursuing careers in science.

As Seema Kumar, who head's Mark's group, put it to me:

Programs like this will go a long way to igniting an interest in life sciences. The high school students of today are the research scientists, lab technicians and executives of the future.

One of my favorite high school teachers was Mr. Skalski who taught biology while cracking jokes and singing top-ten polka tunes (I did grow up in a Cleveland suburb, after all). We loved the guy for the laughs, but his madness had a mission. By making science fun and compelling, we ended up learning something - and many of my friends ended up working in the sciences.

While I understand that making science “fun” isn’t the central purpose of this program, my bet is that making it relevant will have the same impact.

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