As a former life science teacher, as well as an elementary classroom guppy farmer, I’m always interested in creative ways to teach science, as well as looking for more unique and experiential ways to fill STEM classrooms with eager, young scientists. I was fortunate enough to find one, while talking with Natalie Kuldell, Ph.D. at MIT. Kuldell is an instructor with the Department of Biological Engineering. Now, don’t let that MIT role scare you, Kuldell is a creative teacher at heart, and has free teaching modules called BioBuilder for science educators. “Free” in education is always a good thing, but these activities are more of an incredible gift that will help guide cutting edge science learning in a time teachers and students are pressed to meet world and also employment challenges.
“I think that if teachers try one or more of the BioBuilder activities in their classrooms high school or college, then they’ll see the value in teaching with these design challenges. It’s a way to teach both the science content and the engineering endpoints. Our goal is to have science teachers try the modules,” says Dr. Kuldell.
Students are comfortable working on line and learning through videos and animations. All the BioBuilder lessons start with comics that let students learn some of the basic vocabulary, and sets up the design challenges. But, there’s no substitute for hands-on and direct experience with the content. So, students and teachers move from online animations into the classroom and laboratory to carry out activities. We know that students are very comfortable with social networks, so we’ve created a place where they can post their data to the BioBuilder site. Posting allows them to compare what they’ve measured to what students at other schools have discovered. Scientists and engineers share their thinking and discoveries with the larger community, and students should and want to do that, too.
“I’m a scientist by training and I truly love descriptions of the scientific content, but what I’ve found through my work at MIT was that students really learn the technical content when they try to build novel systems. It takes the book learning and theoretical concepts into the real world for them. For instance, if they want a cell to do something interesting in response to an environmental cue, such as detect a poison, fix a broken surface, make a medicine, then they’ll have to figure out how the proteins and DNA can work together to build a switch. That approach brings relevance. The biology itself becomes a building material—the nouns and verbs that they can write sentences with, or the programming language that operates the ‘wetware’,” says Kuldell.
The BioBuilder curriculum also brings current research questions into the classroom. No one yet knows how to reliably and robustly build things made from biological materials. So students will be working at the very cutting edge of what’s possible “This approach, namely teaching through current research questions could apply to other classes as well—someday there could be a PhysicsBuilder, MathBuilder—even FinanceBuilder,” adds Kuldell.
Top research labs have a sophistication in their questions and their resources that’s not reasonable for teachers in most classrooms, but these BioBuilder modules have taken into consideration questions that are at the heart of what’s going on in those labs, and converted them to lessons suitable for AP biology or intro biotechnology classes. Students will be working in a field that is poised to be “THE technology of this century—changing the world the way computer science changed our lives at the end of the last one,” says Kuldell.
The BioBuilder material has been developed with the help of high school teacher, Jim Dixon from Sharon High School in MA. “There’s so much content to cover in class already, that we couldn’t add to the volume. Instead, we’ve tried to provide lessons that cover the material already being taught such as gene expression, DNA transformations and so on, but we’ve cast them with more relevant and investigative frameworks. The early assessment data we’ve collected from students suggests that the material is making sense to them and that their teachers are more confident teaching some of the engineering in their biology classrooms—which is a terrific place to get at it,” says Dixon.
To get more BioBuilder details, visit the student or teacher portals that are open through the BioBuilder homepage. The activities are described below, with links to each.
Each of the components of this curriculum focuses on different, but related, aspects of both biology and synthetic biology:
- Eau that Smell is a laboratory exercise that compares two alternative genetic designs. Both programs should make the cells smell like ripe bananas as the cells grow, and the lab requires that the students generate a bacterial population growth curve to compare the output of the competing banana-smell designs.
- The iTune Device lab examines the role of parts, such as promoters and ribosome binding sites, in predicting the output of a genetic device. The students measure b-galactosidase enzymatic activity as the device’s output, thereby looking through the lens of molecular genetics to predict and then evaluate a device’s behavior.
- Picture This consists of three activities that focus on circuit design. Students examine a two component sensing system that has been engineered to produce bacterial photographs. Picture This activities include a downloadable program to model the genetic system and change experimental parameters, an exercise to model the same system using electronic parts on a bread board, and an opportunity to send a stencil that will be turned into a bacterial photograph.
- What a Colorful World examines the role of the cellular chassis in system performance. Students transform different strains of E. coli with DNA that turns the cells several bright colors. Students then observe how different the color intensity can be from strain to strain, despite being encoded by the same DNA sequence.
- The Essay requires students consider the potential of synthetic biology as well as the risks.
- In the Design assignment, students identify a problem that could be effectively addressed with a biotechnology, and then specify a living system they believe could meet the challenge.