A recent study of middle and high school students across the country found that many states are failing to properly prepare students to pursue college degrees in the biosciences.
But that isn't the case in Massachusetts and seven other states that were found to be leaders in middle and high school science education.
The study was conducted by Battelle, a nonprofit applied science and technology company, the trade group BIO and the Biotechnology Institute. It was released at BIO's recent annual conference in Georgia.
In tests showing their biology proficiency, a higher percentage of Massachusetts students outranked the national average, along with students from Connecticut, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, Vermont and Wisconsin.
Slightly more than 40 percent of Massachusetts eighth-grade students who took the National Education Advancement Programs science exam in 2005 were found to be proficient or above, compared to a national average of 27.3 percent.
In ACT biology tests in 2008, 40 percent of high school students taking the test in Massachusetts were found to be ready for college-level biology classes, compared to 28 percent for students across the country.
But the question is, are the results good enough?
"I don't think having 40 percent of high school graduates ready for a college-level biology course is a great number," said Lance Hartford, who heads up the Massachusetts Biotechnology Education Foundation, also known as MassBioEd. "I have mixed feelings about it. I think it's great for Massachusetts just because we're in the top tier, but I'm very sad for the rest of the country."
"We are struggling here day-to-day to inspire more students to get interested in science and make sure they stay with it," he added.
Despite work by life science companies, local school districts, as well as state and private colleges, there are still not enough students in the science and math pipeline to meet industry needs, he said.
That means there's more work to do to get students interested in science and math and keep them interested through high school and college. If Massachusetts can't do that, it will not remain competitive, Hartford said.
But the fact that the state rated among a select group of "pack leaders" in science education is still good news.
With a high concentration of life science companies, those employers can see that schools are working hard to interest students in math and science. Many employers are located in the Bay State due to the profusion of research-oriented universities like Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute for Technology, Worcester Polytechnic Institute and the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
But as larger companies like Bristol-Myers Squibb choose to build manufacturing plants, such as the one under construction in Devens, there will be an ongoing need for other skill levels in a production setting. Certainly, schools such as Mount Wachusett Community College, Quinsigamond Community College and WPI in Worcester are working to make more workers available by training interested adults for entry-level positions in the biotech industry.
"I think you've got some great organizations, such as the Massachusetts Biotechnology Education Foundation, the Mass Biotech Council, and this administration as well as former administrations that are focused not on just the science itself, but continue to focus on education," said Susan Windham-Bannister, President and CEO of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center in Waltham.
She has found during her first year at the helm of the center that many biotech companies have formal and informal programs with K-12 school systems and colleges and universities. And higher education institutions have reached out to K-12 schools to get them involved in the science and math.
Windham-Bannister has been looking back on the first year of the center's work, and is particularly proud of its ability to leverage taxpayer dollars.
It used $46 million in public money for investments in many programs including tax incentives, matching research grants to academic institutions and loans to provide working capital for early-stage companies.
That $46 million brought in another $357 million in federal and private investment, helping to create 950 jobs, she said.
Of course, the center's investment will depend on its budget, which has undergone many cuts due to drastically reduced state tax revenues. Last year the center's discretionary funding was cut from $25 million to $15 million due to reduced state revenues, and this year it may be cut to $10 million.
"I don't think most people know how much private funding we've been able to leverage," Windham-Bannister said. "It's about an 80-to-20 split, private to public funds. We've been able to keep the life sciences thriving and we've demonstrated a new model for state and private partnerships."