By Sharon Chin

SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — Imagine you are a teenager doing research in a lab reserved for professional scientists. That’s pretty close to reality for South San Francisco High School students.

Welcome to the Science Garage, a state-of-the-art biotech lab located on the campus of South San Francisco High School. Biotech giant Genentech spent nearly $8 million to build the lab, part of a partnership with the school district. The goal is to get kids excited about STEM fields.

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It’s also about being a good corporate neighbor. Genentech employees also mentor local elementary students, and host a science competition for middle-schoolers. The company says it recognizes the need for all schools to have equal opportunity for all kids.

“In South San Francisco, 30 percent of students are English language learners, 40 percent of students are low income, and they have bigger barriers to pursuing a high quality career in their own backyard,’ explained Kristin Campbell Reed, Genentech’s Director of Corporate & Employee Giving. “[So we are] really trying to make it clear that this science drives so many things around them.”

But it’s not all serious. The learning is meant to be fun and engaging. Lessons include a chimpanzee paternity mystery, a tainted meat mystery, and a doggie allergy test, with no actual animals used, of course. After a year-long pilot program, about 1,000 high school students in South San Francisco are using the Science Garage curriculum.

Teachers get mentoring too, and volunteer in-class help from Genentech employees. In the hands-on program, 9th graders get four weeks of biotech work as part of their biology class. Students can then take two more years of biotech classes, and do an independent research project. The electives also meet the high school requirements for entry into the University of California as well as California State University.

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The program seems to be working. After soaking in lessons about protein analysis and DNA sequencing, 17-year-old Nick Arcega is ready to pursue a STEM field when he goes off to college.

“Getting to use the tools that a possible researcher would use,” said Arcega. “Yes, this is exciting.”

Arcega said his plan is to pursue a career in forensic science.

It’s an outcome South San Francisco Unified School District Superintendent Shawnterra Moore is thrilled to see.

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“It’s really created hope and inspiration,” said Moore. “For our kids to really think, ‘I can do this.'”