Leadership magazine logo.
Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators
Connecting students to STEM careers
Leveraging partnerships in the medical innovation, research and entrepreneurship STEM programs
By Karin Koch and Terri Giamarino | March | April 2021
It began with a vision and a chance meeting in late 2019. Karin Koch, Ecosystem Director at University Lab Partners, and Kenia Cueto, Ph.D., Business Partnership Manager at North Orange County Regional Occupational Program, had a conversation about how to introduce and bring awareness of the biotech field to high school students in Orange County. The Beall Family Foundation recognized the need to develop and sustain the next generation of biotech innovators, which led to the development of University Lab Partners at UCI’s Research Park. University Lab Partners is a premier, non-profit, professionally-managed and equipped wet lab facility for researchers to interact and collaborate among a biomedical-focused entrepreneurial community. This is accomplished through real-world training opportunities that enhance and align current training approaches to skill sets valued by industry. Our partnership was formed to deliver this concept to high school students in Orange County.
The first step was to create a team of visionaries, made up of of administration, teachers and support staff, to brainstorm and collaborate to leverage stakeholders to develop an experience for students in Orange County. Karin and her team were excited about the structure of the ROP and its regional delivery of CTE. Cueto and Dana Lynch, assistant superintendent of Educational Services, explained to ULP that NOCROP is a collaborative effort in career technical education by five school districts: Anaheim Union High School District; Brea Olinda Unified School District; Fullerton Joint Union High School District; Los Alamitos Unified School District and Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District, and thus can recruit from over 15,000 students enrolled in ROP classes.
The ROP team, along with Cueto, consists of Gail Kairis and Kathi Kent, administrators of Instructional Programs, Brandon Currin, CTE specialist, and Wendy Jiacoma, administrative assistant. But the key to a successful class experience is its teacher. Rachelle Blinoff-Mudd and Carolann Baldridge were the perfect fit. The goal was to create a one-of-a-kind, two-week immersive program that combines science, law, business and finance to impart a real-world view of the multidisciplinary skills needed to thrive in the biotech entrepreneurial world and to include students working alongside Orange County’s top leaders in innovation and medicine. The team agreed on common goals: to serve all students, to recognize the impact industry relationships have on student success and to pursue innovative, transformational strategies in educational pedagogy. They never doubted this could be possible, even in a pandemic, but kept their focus on the next generation of biotech innovators.
There were many meetings with stakeholders before the virtual experience could be launched in July 2020. The team began building the program’s daily schedule, budget and recruitment model. The work-based learning experience provides students the opportunity to earn UC A-G credits, collaborate with students from other districts and participate in workshops. The recruitment of students covered multiple career pathways (Engineering & Architecture, Health Science & Medical Technology, Business & Finance, Public Services) from the five districts ROP serves. As July neared, the team was busy training the teachers, developing the schedule, creating lesson plans, enrolling students, holding informational meetings and anticipating what this would look like in a virtual environment. The 2020/2021 goal was to emulate this experience for nearly 200 students by spring of 2021. The first cohort included 53 students representing the five school districts NOCROP serves.
Through pediatric-focused case studies, customized lesson plans, team project work and mentorship, students explore pediatric clinical needs and design solutions to issues that directly impact pediatric patients. This unique educational experience brings bioengineering design and medicine together to engage high school students. Not every unmet clinical need is a business-viable unmet clinical need. However, there is tremendous opportunity across fields of healthcare for new devices, diagnostics, artificial intelligence, data science and therapeutics.
According to Koch, “This innovative program is fueled by people with the clinical and business development skills, data science, artificial intelligence, machine learning, hospital management, technology development, strategy insights, product ideation and backgrounds who comprise the larger Orange County biotech and medtech community.”
The first cohort of students was challenged with creating a solution to an unmet clinical need in pediatrics. They participated in workshops and presentations by Orange County’s top leaders in medicine and innovation. Two keynote speakers, Dr. Tolomiczenko, Director of Medical Innovations at the UCI School of Medicine, and Nadine Afari, Manager, Research Programs at Children’s Hospital of Orange County, presented to the students. The pediatric clinical needs were presented by the team from CHOC: Nurse Scientist Jennifer Hayakawa, Dr. Taraman, medical director in Neurology, Dr. Ehwerhemuepha, lead data scientist, and Dr. Kabeer, Pediatric Surgeon.
In addition to the team from CHOC, presentations included Team Building, presented by Dr. George, director of Medical Innovations at UCI; Venture Capital, presented by Leonard Brandt, CEO for CNS Response; and Patents and Intellectual Property, presented by Arash Lessantiz, corporate associate at Stradling, Yocca, Carlson & Rauth. To enhance their pitching skills, students read “Ditch the Act: Reveal the Surprising Power of the Real You for Greater Success,” and participated in a workshop with one of the book’s authors, Ryan Foland. The inaugural class of 53 students was considered a success.
After the accomplishment of the 2020 summer STEM program, the CHOC Research Institute and ULP expanded the Medical Innovation, Research and Entrepreneurship STEM Program. The fall cohort served over 100 Orange County high school students virtually over an eight-week period. With the addition of College and Career Advantage in South Orange County, the program reached two more school districts for a total of seven school districts. The fall cohort was enhanced with a team of 20 industry mentors who have committed their time and expertise to supporting the next generation of STEM leaders.
We have a responsibility to engage and support our students in STEM careers, and it starts with a team of dedicated individuals who believe in creating partnerships that enhance a student’s high school career.”
This STEM program aligns with the mission of CHOC Children’s — to nurture, advance and protect the health and well-being of children. “Pediatric health too often takes a back seat to adult health research,” according to Dr. Terrence Sanger, M.D., Ph.D., vice president and Chief Scientific Officer at CHOC Children’s.
“These high school students will see examples of how interdisciplinary teams work together to identify and address clinical needs by creating the knowledge, devices, and procedures that will ensure children lead the healthiest possible lives. Through their ‘fresh eyes,’ these young people — who are keen to focus on children’s needs — will be able to allow more senior researchers and mentors to see their work through a new lens to find problems and solutions that only a child could imagine,” Dr. Sanger said.
“This is yet another way that The CHOC Children’s Research Institute and University Lab Partners are partnering to make Orange County the place with the healthiest children anywhere. We are committed to improving the health, longevity and overall well-being of children, this includes their education,” said Kim Cripe, president and CEO of CHOC Children’s.
“This innovative STEM Program also aligns with the vision for the CEO Leadership Alliance of Orange County, an organization that nurtures top OC talent, jobs and quality of life for Orange County. Orange County is a hotbed for medtech and biotech entrepreneurship and commercialization. The CHOC Research Institute is excited to support this program and to motivate the next generation of leaders in translational science, medical devices and basic science research,” said Brent Dethlefs, executive director of The CHOC’s Research Institute.
It is vital that we connect students to STEM fields. According to the 2019-20 Orange County Community Indicators Report, Orange County has higher than average employment concentration in 15 out of the 19 high-tech industries, second only to Oakland and tied with tech hubs such as Boston and San Jose (Orange County, 2020). In Orange County we have so many opportunities to “grow our own talent” in STEM careers. We need to expose our students to these opportunities to make Orange County first in the high-tech industry sector.
“The CHOC and ULP partnership is a powerful combination; a collaborative approach to generate the energy needed to transform the healthcare industry and to develop new leading technology products and platforms,” said CHOC’s Nadine Afari.
This spring, the Medical Innovation, Research and Entrepreneurship STEM Program will expand yet again. With the addition of Coastline Regional Occupational Program, five more school districts were added for a total of 12. The experience will be offered to 200 students. What began as a chance encounter and a vision has the potential to change and transform a career path for students.
The mission of NOCROP is to equip and empower tomorrow’s innovative, civic-minded professionals through career technical education. This cannot be done without business partnerships and selfless individuals who know the value and importance of connecting students to STEM fields.
NOCROP’s Terri Giamarino concluded, “We have a responsibility to engage and support our students in STEM careers, and it starts with a team of dedicated individuals who believe in creating partnerships that enhance a student’s high school career. This is what this partnership provides — opportunities — and without ULP, CHOC Children’s Research Institute and a team of incredible educators, we may be missing out on the next medical innovation that transforms our world.”
2019-20 Orange County Community Indicators Report (Rep.), 2020.
Karin Koch is the Ecosystem Director at University Lab Partners and Terri Giamarino serves as superintendent of North Orange County ROP.
Contact Us

© 2020 Association of California School Administrators