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Buchanan Middle offers bioengineering curriculum


Published:   |   Updated: September 5, 2013 at 08:25 AM

Bioengineering sounds like an advanced college course to most people.

To more than 40 kids at Buchanan Middle School, it’s just part of their daily curriculum.

Bioengineering is a part of the STEM program, which consists of science, technology, engineering and math. The motto at Buchanan says it all: “Dream it, design it, build it.”

It might sound like a tough task for kids in sixth through eighth grades, but it’s a challenge that the kids welcome. And they have no problem explaining how their program works.

“We start the basics in sixth grade,” eighth-grader Mehdi Rizk said. “We started using software and then got into Bio Ethics. If you are doing something that people really want and need, it’s a lot of fun and makes it all worthwhile.”

Okay, so what is bioengineering, not to mention bioethics?

Bioengineering applies the concepts of the STEM program to solve problems in science by using computers and traditional science methods, as well as knowledge that is now being learned about molecular biology, to study living organisms.

It might not be for everybody, but of the 44 students who entered the program as sixth-graders, 40 remain and likely will attend Gaither High School next year, which also offers the program.

Making it through three years in the bioengineering program at Buchanan is a rough road. The sixth-grade curriculum requires honors language arts, honors math, honors science, honors social studies, engineering and special electives. It doesn’t get any easier in seventh grade. The same honors classes are required, plus an engineering class called Exploring Technology. The eighth grade requires honors language arts, algebra I honors, physical science honors, advanced honors social studies, and advanced engineering technology. By eighth grade, the students are already earning high school credits.

The kids who stick it out for three years at Buchanan say it is worth the effort. Bill Ganter, who has run the program at the north Tampa school since its beginning five years ago, said that just getting into the program isn’t enough. The report card matters the most.

“If it’s not an A, it just ain’t,” he said. “We expect the most out of the kids once they are in.”

The bioengineering program is in a large room in the back of the Buchanan campus. There are computers everywhere and several Pink Floyd posters on the walls. Music from the ‘80s plays throughout the day and the kids are learning everything from stem-cell research to the ethics behind health care. Hospitals now have bioengineering but it isn’t quite as common in middle schools. Buchanan is the only Hillsborough County middle school that offers it.

The bioethics part of the program is key to making the kids understand what it means to be part of the bioengineering program. Even one week into the school year, kids are given three case studies and are expected to come up with resolutions involving ethics. Ganter said one of the main discussions involves harvesting organs from children who may or may not live. Do you take them before or after death? It’s a tough question for anyone, especially for eighth-graders.

Still, it gives the kids a chance to put their brains to use.

“It’s a rising career,” Mehdi said. “It is inspiring and really makes you think.”

Leigh Dittman is an eighth-grader at Buchanan who has a special interest in the program. She uses a wheelchair, suffering from what she describes as “brittle bones,” a calcium deficiency. She puts on her own charity event every year to benefit the Shriners Hospital for Children at the University of South Florida. She’s won plenty of awards for philanthropy and wants to be a nurse one day.

“It’s all about mixing life and science and math,” Leigh said. “We have almost all been together for three years now. It’s a special bond. Our teachers are the same since we first started and we’ve all been together. They push us hard, and no matter how hard we work, the teacher tells us we can do better. It’s kind of liking having a job you can’t quit.’’

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