You don’t often see MIT lecturers using cartoons in their lessons plans. However, as 27 teachers sat mesmerized by the series of animations unfolding onscreen, it was clear that Natalie Kuldell, an instructor in MIT’s Department of Biological Engineering, was on to something.
When Kuldell started teaching synthetic biology, she quickly noticed that there was a great demand for knowledge of the topic across many fields. Kuldell recalls, “Political science professors would ask to be taught some of the underlying biology so they could understand the policy questions, and biology people wanted to be taught the engineering side. Niche groups were asking for educational materials and I realized I needed something.” This high demand inspired Kuldell to create biobuilder.org.
Working with Jim Dixon, an advanced-placement biology teacher at Sharon High School in Sharon, Mass., Kuldell developed a way to teach educators about teaching synthetic biology. What was different about their approach was that they based their site around ongoing areas of research through a series of animations.
The site is designed to be accessible to a variety of ages, from high school to college and beyond. Animated lessons are accompanied by labs created by Dixon and Kuldell. Often, these lab exercises are extensions of current advanced-placement biology labs or summer research projects generated through the international Genetically Engineered Machines competition.
“What I see as a real potential is that students can learn engineering ideas within the more comfortable domain of biology. Where else are they going to get it?” Dixon says. Indeed, the site is structured around blending the newer ideas of synthetic biology into the more familiar structure of an animated cartoon, with the intent of making the topics seem less intimidating to students.
The young field of synthetic biology is valued for its ability to bring an engineering context to a biological system. It is an important tool for teachers to communicate ideas in subjects such as genetic engineering and molecular biology, and gives biology concepts the practical backing that engineering provides. Additionally, the ideas in synthetic biology encourage students to address real-world problems, which in turn develops critical-thinking skills.
The site met with positive feedback from high school and college teachers at the first weeklong BioBuilding professional development workshop. One attendant, Sherry Annee of Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis, Ind., expressed her satisfaction with BioBuilder's content: "No longer can one be satisfied teaching genetics within the context of Mendel," Annee said. "Rather, through a series of hands-on, inquiry based labs, the BioBuilder curriculum compels students to discover Mendel’s modern legacy: synthetic biology."
To learn more about BioBuilder, please visit www.biobuilder.org.