Future Technician Preparation (Bio-technology)

With the start of the new year (happy new year to all), FLATE Focus continues with discussion of our "Work to do for Future Technician Preparation theme".  The National Science Foundation is extremely interested in what technician education should "look-like" because new and near future advancements in science, engineering, and technology are changing American industry.  As suggested in the December FLATE Focus, math is the heart and soul of STEM.  It is imbedded in every significant achievement in science, engineering, and technology.  Thus, mathematics might have new and future advances to contribute to new technologies.  However, "future of work" technologies will also demand the technical workforce to have a secure knowledge of and comfort level with specific subsets of existing STEM connected math concepts.  The National Science Foundation Advanced Technological Education (NSF-ATE) program involves partnerships between academic institutions and industry to promote and execute improvement in the education of technicians.  The ATE program's focus includes, but is not limited to, advanced manufacturing technologies, agricultural and bio-technologies, energy and environmental technologies, engineering technologies, information technologies, micro- and nanotechnologies, security technologies, geospatial technologies, and applied research on technician education.

The "bio-technologies" part of NSF-ATE agricultural and bio-technologies technician education mission is another example of what new specific contributions from science, technology, and engineering combined with some great new applications of mathematics has and continues to do.  Although the agricultural sector (see last month's Focus for discussion) does at least have bigger and more fancy farm equipment to suggest the presence of future of work technology, the incredible changes in the bio-tech sector are not apparent to much of the public.  These new technologies have "borrowed" their innovation from a variety of mathematics, science, and technology sources to make it even challenging for educators in the field to pinpoint this STEM contribution and impact.  Actually, it is not even clear who is willing to step up and define biotechnology so that a discussion of future of work issues on biotechnology can stay focused on that topic.

When all else fails many of us just default to Webster (now-a-days: Merriam-Webster) for any definition.  

 "The manipulation (as through genetic engineering) of living organisms or their components to produce useful usually commercial products (such as pest resistant crops, new bacterial strains, or novel pharmaceuticals) also: any of various applications of biological science used in such manipulation."

Using this Webster definition, it is possible to identify the two important segments of the bio-technology sector; components to produce commercial products and applications of biological science to accomplish the task.  As new technologies become embedded in both of these segments, technician work expectations change.  One mathematics impact example for each segment is provided as "food for thought" to trigger more in-depth study of technician education in this sector. 

For the laboratory-based technician, the introduction of more sophisticated metrology tools triggers the need for the tech to understands statistics beyond result interpretation from the classic visual (microscope) interrogation of manipulated bacterial strains.  New instruments provide data, graphs, and/ or spectra to report their interrogation of a sample.  These information formats inevitably require statistics to clarify and characterize the reported results.  The technicians and advanced operators assigned to these instruments will need a secure knowledge of at least Gaussian based statistics to evaluate the significance of the means and variances of the actual sample and the sample population.  They will be expected to deal much more data and the interpretation of many data sets. 

 For the technician involved in the commercial manipulation of living organisms or their components, the new technologies are automating these operations.  As with any automation, the technician’s role morphs to meet the new situation.  Inevitably production automation introduces the mathematics of process control to the technician and advanced process operators.  Even the simplest math concepts in PID (proportional, integral, and differential) control of a process stream are not typically presented to today's bio-technology student.  Most likely these same future technicians do not today receive any exposure to the practical mathematics of calculus associated with integration and differentiation.  

Repeating our mantra for this series of briefings; "The work to do starts with you."  What do you think the bio-technician interface to laboratory and commercial processes should look like?  Can both segments of biotechnology be covered in one A.S. degree program to service the industry?  What should mathematics training be for these technicians and how can it best be done?  Will the same future bio-tech technician be expected to work in the testing lab and the production floor?  These are complicated questions with perhaps convoluted answers. The first step is to just get the discussion going.  Please let us know what you think.

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