Bright Futures: Genentech Makes Learning Fun in South San Francisco

June 15, 2016


The huge landmark sign on the hill reads South San Francisco is “The Industrial City.” It is where See’s Candies are made and also known as the birthplace of biotechnology. But there’s been somewhat of a disconnect between biotechnology and the residents of the area, with Highway 101 effectively dividing the houses and schools from the campuses of high-tech companies that call the area home.

So when Genentech, a U.S. subsidiary of Roche, the Swiss global healthcare company, was looking for a way to invest in its community, it decided to bridge that gap by partnering with the South San Francisco Unified School District to create an education program that would inspire K-12 kids to pursue a career in STEM. Futurelab provides powerful mentoring for students along with hands-on learning experiences and gives teachers the curriculum, professional development and resources they need to bring STEM concepts to life in an engaging, impactful way.

Starting in elementary school, students are offered a 1:1 mentoring program.

Lise Dumont, a senior manager for corporate relations, mentored one student from the third through fifth grades and is now mentoring a second student, a third-grader. She calls the experience “powerful and inspiring.”

“It’s great to see the world and science problems through a child’s eyes,” Dumont said, “I am also reminded of some of the challenges of learning.”

Dumont has enjoyed the experience so much that she has joined the advisory committee of Gene Academy, one of Futurelab’s programs, and is helping to develop the program so it is even more appealing to the students.

“We came up with a three-year plan so they get a variety of offerings from us,” she said. “This year, we visited the Innovation Center of Excellence on the Genentech campus, a place custom-built for brainstorming and vetting ideas. We brought kids in and had a mini-brainstorming session for them.” They also brought the students to visit the Founders Research Center and the robotics lab.

“I found myself imagining being in my dream job as a scientist,” said one Gene Academy student in her 5th grade program graduation speech. That really hit home for Dumont.

Those kinds of opportunities have not always been available to students in the South San Francisco Unified School District, where Sara Shayesteh has been a teacher for six years. Compared to neighboring communities, SSFUSD spends 31 percent less per student, and only 30 percent of high school graduates attend a four-year institution. Further, 40 percent of students come from families living in poverty and 65 percent of elementary school students are English language learners.

“The Futurelab program is a fantastic and innovative partnership,” Shayesteh said. “It has been invaluable to our district.”

For one thing, she’d never been able to take her students on field trips until this partnership was established because of lack of funding.

“Genentech has made a commitment that for every science class in middle school and high school, every student goes on a field trip every year,” she said. “This is huge! Our students typically don’t go on field trips, especially science-related field trips.”

For many of her students, these trips have been their first visits to places like the Monterey Bay Aquarium or the California Academy of Sciences, despite the fact both are nearby.

Futurelab has also allowed Shayesteh to bring a four-week biotechnology unit to her high school, incorporating a more hands-on approach than students were accustomed to in the past.

“The biotech unit triggered such a shift in student engagement and behavior,” she said. “We really saw all the students invested in participating.”

Another part of Futurelab is the Helix Cup, a science competition for all eighth graders in the district that helps students develop problem-solving, teamwork and science skills, coached by Genentech employees.

Shayesteh says the full impact of Futurelab in the district can’t yet be calculated. Middle schools are in their second year of the Helix Cup science competition, high schools are in their second year of the biotech unit and a buzz of interest is growing throughout the district. That makes Shayesteh, as a teacher, extremely grateful.

“It makes me so happy to see this growing opportunity for our students. I think our kids and community welcome that opportunity and what better partner to do it with than Genentech? They’re right here and have such a strong presence. How wonderful that they’re investing in their backyard,” said Shayesteh.

The next project for Futurelab is the Science Garage, a state-of-the-art 7,000 sq. foot biotech classroom facility that is being built on the South San Francisco High School campus. The Genentech Foundation is funding the building with a $7.8 million donation and their Site Services team is overseeing construction.

For Dumont, working at a company that puts this kind of investment into the local schools and community is a huge point of pride. She sees it beyond her own volunteerism through Futurelab. “I’m also a big sister through Big Brothers, Big Sisters,” she said. “[My Little Sister] is currently in seventh grade and I’m so excited because next year she’ll be able to participate in the Helix Cup, and by the time she gets into high school in 2017, we will have opened the Science Garage. When you think about all the kids that are impacted by what we are doing, I know we are making a huge and lasting difference in their lives.”