Biogen trades lab coats for laptops with virtual summer STEM program for high-schoolers

Biogen Community Lab manager Alazar Ayele taught students in the lab last summer, but this year leads a virtual version created with MIT. (Biogen)

For almost 20 years, Biogen has pulled students from low-income households into its labs during the summer through its Community Lab science learning program.

Then along came the COVID-19 pandemic. However, while the novel coronavirus has put the kibosh on hands-on STEM for now, Biogen has reworked its program to create a virtual 2020 summer session.

The pharma partnered with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to create a new Biogen-MIT: Biotech in Action program that would still be compelling and get high-schoolers excited about STEM careers. Because the program is aimed at low-income households, Biogen worked to make sure all the students had the laptops and broadband access they’d need.

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Now, instead of digging into labwork, Lemelson-MIT's virtual simulation technology will let students remotely use their hands in the lab and perform augmented reality experiments, said Alazar Ayele, Biogen’s Cambridge Community Lab manager, who was once a summer Community Lab student himself. 

“Thinking about the future workforce and the next generation of STEM education and innovation, it’s so important to think about how seeing is doing for students nowadays. It’s important for them to be captivated by who’s teaching them and then also be able to do it,” he said, in discussing the importance of the "hands-on" simulations.

With fewer limits on physical space, Biogen was able to include more students. The camp will now have an additional 80 students, for a total of 400 high-school-aged STEM learners in Boston and North Carolina.

The mission of the Community Lab's science learning work with students under-represented in STEM connects to Biogen's credo to care deeply, work fearless and change lives, Ayele said. 

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“We need to make sure that vulnerable populations have access to STEM education and that they have opportunities that allow them to excel and think about STEM opportunities, as the community that we’re typically involved in doesn’t have enough representations,” he said. “...When I said 'yes' to STEM in 2006, I knew it was a commitment not just to myself, but it was a commitment to the entire community to say that as an African-American man, I’m opening and paving the way for science opportunities for everyone.”

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