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Some Brief Comments About Skill Standards
Last updated: April 12, 2006

Between 1992 and 1995, the U.S. Departments of Education and Labor provided grants to develop national, industry based skill standards for more than 20 industries in the United States. The purpose of skill standards is to help identify what an entry level worker/technician needs to know and needs to be able to do. There were two federal skill standards projects relating to biotechnology that brought together hundreds of biotechnology technicians, supervisors, leaders and educators to analyze the nature of technical work in the biotechnology laboratory and in production settings. The Education Development Center, Inc. (EDC) received a grant to develop skill standards for entry and mid level technical workers in the Bioscience Industry, with a focus on medical bioscience. The FFA Foundation, Inc. (FFA) received a grant to develop skill standards for technical workers in Agricultural Biotechnology. The results of these two biotechnology-related national projects were two books "Gateway to the Future: Skill Standards for the Bioscience Industry", and "National Voluntary Occupational Skill Standards: Agricultural Biotechnology Technician." The Agricultural and Bioscience Skill Standards have recently been combined into one brief summary document, "The Combined EDC/FFA Skill Standards." If you are unfamiliar with the federal biotechnology skill standards projects, you might want to take a look at the "Brief Historical Introduction" written by Judy Leff of the EDC.

In addition to these federally-funded projects, there have been state-funded biotechnology skill standards projects, for example, The Austin Competency Analysis Profile. Also, many colleges obtain input from their local employers and organize them into documents to guide the development of their biotechnology programs. Sometimes these documents are called DACUMs (short for "Develop a Curriculum"). If you have such a DACUM or other similar type of document that you would like to post on this website, please submit it.

Skill standards and other types of work profiles provide a valuable resource to guide the planning and implementation of biotechnology courses and programs. These formal career analyses can be used to develop cohesive, effective instructional programs so that our students are well-prepared for biotechnology careers. Skill standards also provide a common vocabulary and a basis for conversation among educators and industry representatives.

Sometimes skill standard documents indicate a significant gap between what is taught in traditional academic college courses, and what students need to know and be able to do when they begin working. For example, in many college science courses, students are only briefly taught about laboratory safety as the introduction to a first laboratory activity. However, skills and knowledge relating to safety have been identified as essential in all laboratory skill standards projects; safety is consistently identified as being important in the work place. Therefore, safety probably warrants a more thoughtful and a more comprehensive presentation than it often gets. Similarly, every biotechnology skill standard document identifies the importance of making laboratory solutions and reagents. However, many college students only learn about this topic when it is briefly covered in freshmen chemistry. Few students emerge from a traditional chemistry class with the skills to make TE buffer (a molecular biology staple). While skill standards are valuable documents, they must be transformed by educators into meaningful instruction. The first step in this transformation involves selection. This is because the skill standards documents encompass a formidable array of skills and knowledge, more that a single student could master in a college program. Therefore, it is the task of each biotechnology program to select the skills and knowledge they will teach and to organize them into coherent modules, courses and programs. Different programs make different choices because they reflect the needs of their own communities, institutions, and students. Most biotechnology programs teach communication, safety, and basic laboratory skills, the first three categories in both the EDC/FFA Combined Skill Standards and the Austin Competency Analysis Profile. These three basic areas are essential in almost any laboratory setting and are generally relevant to biotechnology production also. More specialized topics, such as bioprocessing, or nucleic acid technologies, may be emphasized in one program and not another. For example, in some communities there are few biotechnology companies that make a product, but there are academic research laboratories. A biotechnology program in this community might emphasize such things as laboratory skills, research techniques, and molecular biology methodologies. In contrast, in a community that has many large biotechnology companies, students might learn cleanroom techniques, operation of large volume bioreactors, and large scale bioprocessing.

An important challenge for educators is to transform skill standards into instruction that encourages students to become good "thinkers" and independent learners. Students need to develop much more than the ability to perform individual tasks in isolation from one another. They need to understand the purpose, theory and context of these tasks; they need to be able to put together skills in a meaningful way to achieve a goal; they need to be able to recognize and trouble-shoot problems. The Instructional Materials Section of the Bio-Link Clearinghouse has many useful instructional materials and links to resources to help educators design creative, effective instructional activities. Also, Bio-Link staff have prepared an annotated version of the combined biotechnology skill standards: Online Resources for EDC/FFA Combined Skill Standards. The annotated version contains extensive links to help you find out more about each skill listed.

In addition to technical skills, students need a basic core of knowledge in biology, chemistry, and math. Without this background, students may master specific techniques, yet lack the background to solve problems. Also, without a theoretical understanding, students will be poorly-prepared to adapt to the rapid pace of change in the field. In most biotechnology programs students take classes in biology, chemistry and math. The EDC/FFA Combined Skill Standards includes a brief section on Academic Knowledge. As educators, we strive to teach our students how to communicate, learn independently, work collaboratively, and so on. The Austin Competency Analysis Profile identifies a number of such general attributes. Most of these skills and attributes are important in any career, wherever a person's career takes them.

Lisa Seidman, Ph. D.
Madison Area Technical College
3550 Anderson St.
Madison, WI 53704
(608) 246-6204

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