Sonoma Family Life Magazine — March 2011
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Meet Teacher Joan Vreeburg

Joan Vreeburg

Inspiring Bio-tech Brilliance at El Molino 16 SonomaFamilyLife

Why do so many students at El Molino High School want to take and do well in science? How could you not study or do homework when your teacher throws you a KISS from across the room, for the correct answer (Hershey’s of course). Little Miss Muffett may have pulled off curds and whey but Vreeburg takes her milk experiment to a new level. Did you know the temperature under your arm is perfect for making “Cheese”? Welcome to your first project of Freshman Year Lab Biology.

Biotechnology is one of the fastest growing fields in science today. Yet for every three science majors from the ‘baby boomers’ currently there is only one replacement. However, there is a middle-size high school tucked away in Forestville working hard to change that. If you want to take science at El Molino there is plenty of room: on the Wait List.

A whole generation of ‘Science Sleuths’ is being created by a teacher whose love of science is equaled only by her passion to share it.

Vreeburg’s approach is inspiring and her passion for science contagious. A self proclaimed grant-writer-aholic, she has filled her classroom with many thousands of dollars of equipment for the hands-on experience that helps

Make science come alive for the students. Using the same techniques and equipment as found in real-world laboratories, Vreeburg’s students are able to grow, study and investigate biology on the cellular level.

The program is completely interactive on every level. Vreeburg starts with an introductory lecture then challenges student teams to begin their own hands-on research. During the semester students create a research project, perform the research, evaluate the results and present their discovery. Currently her students are working with a Ph.D. student from UC Davis. At the conclusion of their project, they will make a presentation of their research at the University.

Vreeburg has created a classroom in which science is truly meaningful, important and real. The classroom reverberates with a constant science dialogue as students teach and learn from each other. You can actually see and hear the engagement and dedication. Students learn laboratory skills, perform real scientific testing and are required to maintain legal scientific notebooks. Even the atypical oral tests are rewarding as Vreeburg and her student share the thrill of the extensive amount of knowledge that has been learned.

Stimulating field trips to places such as the Buck Institute, the Joint Genome Institute and the Lawrence Livermore National Lab show the students real-life opportunities in the field of biotechnology. Because of Vreeburg’s acclaim, her students are invited to participate and work with the scientists at numerous facilities, not just watch.

Guest speakers from all sectors and levels of biotechnology are frequently invited to class adding to the students understanding of the variety and possibilities of a career in science. Vreeburg has found her students shadowing opportunities, created internships and connections into biotechnology pathways whenever possible.

Vreeburg offers extra credit for an assortment of class and science related projects.Some students make fliers for the “El Molino High School Biotechnology Career Program” while others videotape important moments during class. Several students made an informative power-point to share with nearby middle-school students: possibly their first introduction to the fun and fascinating field of biotechnology. This is clearly a testimony to the dedication and interest in science Vreeburg has inspired in her students.

Cutting Edge:

What is the significance of one of the most important biotech product?

The most recent estimate from the Department of Energy states that ethanol usage could reduce petrol driven fuel consumption up to 30% by 2030.

As a master of motivation Joan Vreeburg has brought El Molino High School into the National Science spotlight. Her biotechnology program is so comprehensive that students can earn college credits for completing it.

In a recent article, West Sonoma County Union High School District Superintendent Keller McDonald described the skills of students who complete her biotechnology course as being able to “completely function at an entry level” in the biotechnology industry.

Ever resourceful, Vreeburg had to find money to finance her salary for this biotechnology class which is separate from the other biology classes she teaches. She made it happen through the Sonoma County Office of Education Regional Occupation Program.

And now Sonoma County will be sharing Joan Vreeburg’s powerful influence in science. In March she has been invited to participate on the National Science Education Board in Washington D.C. where she will be able to influence the National Science Teaching Standards.

Vreeburg’s dedication, enthusiasm and energy have not gone unnoticed. Adding to her long list of accolades, she was recently named the 2010 Outstanding Biology Teacher for the state of California by the National Association of Biology Teachers.


How’s your science?

What do denim, toxic waste cleaners, cheese, and sycamore trees all have in common? They are all products of biotechnology. Biotechnology is a field of applied biology. In it living organisms are modified for a specific human need or use. Of the four sectors many of the products affect us daily.

1. Medical or pharmaceutical biotechnology produces insulin and disease fighting bacteria.

2. Approximately 80% of our food in stores, even cheese, is genetically engineered through agricultural biotechnology.

3. The stains in our clothes are broken down by proteases developed by industrial biotechnology.

4. Environmental biotechnologists have developed special sycamore trees that take mercury out of the soil and make it nontoxic as well as bacteria that help clean up oil spills by “eating” the oil.