Getting Hands-On Biomedical Training at Catalyst Maria

By Robert M. Marovich

A team huddled, their faces creased in grave concern. There was a viral outbreak at the hospital. Their job was to track down and contain it before it infected more patients and staff. What were their options? Time was ticking down. They needed to act.

Though this simulation exercise was part of the biomedical science course at Catalyst Maria High School on the city’s Southwest Side, to the team of students presented with it, the scenario couldn’t feel more real. 

The Catalyst Schools biomedical science course, and others like it, have been made possible by grants from Northrop Grumman Corporation. Since 2014, Northrop Grumman has contributed nearly $100,000 to the Catalyst Schools STEM program. By introducing youth of color to engineering and the sciences starting as early as kindergarten, Northrop Grumman and Catalyst Schools – a Chicago K-12 charter school network – seeks to increase Black and Latinx participation in science-related professions.

“There are a tremendous number of career applications built into the biomedical science curriculum,” Catalyst course instructor Tom Kingsbury explained. “Physiology, genetics, microbiology, public health—these are all in-demand professions. But understanding our bodies is relevant to everyone, and so are the critical thinking and communication skills this program offers.” 

Biomedical science is one of many STEM courses available at Catalyst Schools. Students from kindergarten to senior year in high school are also introduced to such in-demand areas as aerospace engineering, civil engineering, architecture, robotics, and earth sciences. They apply the technology professionals use to solve real-world problems. 

The Catalyst STEM program gets its curricula, lab materials, and teacher professional development from the Indianapolis, Indiana, nonprofit Project Lead the Way (PLTW). A national leader in transforming school science programs into twenty-first century science workspaces, PLTW has partnered with Catalyst for nearly a decade. Northrop Grumman funding has underwritten much of the cost of these resources since they are not covered by Catalyst’s traditional revenue sources. In addition, the company has purchased additional electronic tablets and virtual reality headsets for the school, and sponsored Catalyst Maria’s first STEAM Expo (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math).

“In these difficult times, it is far easier to look at the negative news around us,” said Northrop Grumman Software Manager Steven D’Souza, a member of the Catalyst Board of Directors since 2015. “However, when I think of the Northrop-Catalyst friendship, I see hope and positivity.”

 Getting students interested in biomedical science is especially critical. A 2019 study reported by the American Association of Medical Colleges revealed that only 5.8% of active physicians identify as Latinx, and only 5% as Black or African American. In response, Catalyst and Northwestern Memorial Hospital are supplementing the biomedical science course by introducing students to health care careers. 

The idea blossomed during a conversation between Catalyst Schools CEO Gordon Hannon and James G. Adams, MD, senior vice president and chief medical officer of Northwestern Medicine. A former biology teacher, Hannon knew how inspiring an interactive experience in medicine could be for teenagers. Dr. Adams agreed and invited Catalyst Maria High School students to visit Northwestern Memorial and consider medicine as a career.

“Four consecutive years of rigorous biomedical science classes, along with traditional high school science classes, will give students an amazing foundation for success in a college pre-medicine program,” Hannon explained. “This new program connects perfectly with the Northwestern Memorial Hospital experience and our common goals.”

Recognizing that students from underserved communities remain underrepresented in medical schools, Dr. Adams shares Catalyst’s interest in getting students from these communities interested in healthcare professions.

“Northwestern is thrilled to offer this connection,” Dr. Adams said, “because we know that the students have high potential and great talent. Having them see the healthcare professions up close will hopefully inspire some to keep working to join the ranks of doctors, nurses, therapists, administrators, or other health professionals.”

At present, Catalyst Maria High School offers PLTW Biomedical Science at the Honors level, but Kingsbury said that the school plans to make the course available to all freshmen starting in the 2021 fall semester.

“Northrop Grumman is an important leg of a three-legged stool,” Hannon said. “They are providing the financial support, while Dr. Adams and Northwestern are providing the inspirational and professional support for students to learn about the medical sciences and gain exposure to one of the world’s premier medical institutions. Catalyst is the educational foundation enabling students to meet the demands of a college pre-med program.” 

“We believe in the students from Catalyst and want to eventually be working side by side with them when they achieve their professional goals,” Dr. Adams said. “We want to help them get there.” D’Souza agreed. “Making a positive impact on the community and on the students is really something to celebrate.”