By Rob Kuznia -- The Daily Breeze

The biomedical science class launched this year at both El Segundo and Redondo Union high schools isn't your older sibling's biology course.

On the first day of class, rather than cracking a textbook or familiarizing themselves with glossary terms, students ponder the fictitious case of a dead woman named Anna Garcia, age 31.

She has been found face down on the floor of her home, with a wound to her head. Her fingernails are gray, and she had vomited. How did she die?

The students spend the rest of the unit piecing the mystery together - and the rest of year studying all of her many ailments.

Officially named "the principles of biomedical sciences," the course is the product of a growing movement in

Biomedical program at El Segundo High School for students with in interest in the health care field. Students write up reports on the recent lab projects done in class. (Brad Graverson / Staff Photographer)

education that emphasizes hands-on, career-oriented education in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math - typically referred to as STEM.

The aim of the four-year sequence of courses is to expose kids early on to a booming field offering a vast array of professions, from X-ray technician to forensics expert to family practitioner.

Grace Wigington, a ninth-grader at El Segundo High, took the class because she already knows she wants to be a cardiovascular surgeon.

"My mom's a nurse, and she always tells me really interesting stories," she said. "I've just always been interested in it."

The course itself is prepackaged and offered by Project Lead the Way, a nonprofit provider of STEM-based


curriculum that, until recently, focused mainly on engineering. The biomedical sciences program was added to the menu four years ago; nationwide demand for it has surged.

In just two years, the number of high schools offering the biomedical course has nearly tripled, and now stands at 544. (Thirty-six of those high schools are in California.)

"I think it really just speaks to the skills gap in the United States," said Jennifer Cahill, director of communications with the Indianapolis-based company. "These are the kind of jobs that are in demand, and the kind of skills that are lacking in graduates."

Nicole Wesley, principal of Redondo Union High, said she was drawn to the program in part by a student survey showing that a third of the school's seniors planned to enroll in STEM-related majors after high school.

"We also had some teachers at the school who were excited about it, because it is a different way of teaching," she said.

Using the Garcia case as a vehicle for learning, students are introduced to all manner of medical concepts: cholesterol, diabetes, infectious disease, heart disease, blood pressure.

Toward the beginning of the year, they are exposed to an autopsy

Biomedical program at El Segundo High School for students with in interest in the health care field. Grace Wigington, 9th grade, monitors her heart rate into a computer program. (Brad Graverson / Staff Photographer)

report, which gives them more evidence, such as the fact that she showed trace levels of nicotine.

As they delve further into the case, students become more immersed. They acquaint themselves with equipment such as heart-rate monitors and blood-pressure cuffs. They analyze data about EKGs (electrocardiograms), blood pressure and heart rate.

They dissect a sheep's heart, which closely resembles that of a human. Students even practice writing grant proposals, in which they must find a real-world medical problem and pose a solution.

"You don't have to be an AP student," said Karin DeCollibus, a biomedical sciences teacher at Redondo Union High, referring to college-level Advanced Placement classes. "You just have to be willing to put in the work. And you have to be willing to learn new technologies."

With each new unit, the class studies a handful of potential health care-related careers - which is really the whole point.

Students also learn more about research. Working in teams, they compile reports detailing the results of studies in which they often act as their own guinea pigs. What happens to your heart rate when you hold a couple of ice cubes? What happens to it when you do 20 jumping jacks?

(The heart rate of an average person at rest is about 70 beats per minute. It increases when one touches a block of ice - an endeavor that mimics the heart's fight-or-flight response.)

DeCollibus cautions students not to fret if their own readings are irregular.

"I never say, `You might want to go check that out,"' she said, adding that the school-grade sensors are not of the same caliber as those used by industry professionals. "Our blood-pressure readings are all over the place."

The courses at both schools are open to all students, but because the entire program lasts four years, the first class is an ideal offering for freshmen.

The next class, called Human Body Systems, focuses more on homeostasis - or a look at how the body systems work together to promote good health.

The third course, called Medical Interventions, has students learning the precepts of diagnosis, treatment and prevention by following the lives of a fictitious family.

In the capstone course, called Biomedical Innovation, seniors apply the knowledge they've acquired in the prior classes on real-world problems, such as designing emergency rooms or working internships in the field.

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