October 10, 2013
By Silver Lin
For one week last August, the teachers became the students when nine high school educators attended the 2013 BioBuilder program in Berkeley’s Stanley Hall. This year’s workshop was designed to help teachers find innovative ways to introduce synthetic biology into their classrooms and featured wet labs, lunch seminars with professors, and a field trip to the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI).
The BioBuilder Foundation and the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (Synberc) sponsored the workshop, which was first offered at MIT in 2007 and is in its second year at Berkeley.
The BioBuilder program brought motivated instructors from all over the country to participate in a workshop taught and facilitated by Berkeley postdoctoral researcher Katie Hart and Crescenta Valley High School science teacher Orenda Tuason. Participants spent their mornings familiarizing themselves with synthetic biology concepts, their lunches listening to seminars presented by experts in the field, and their afternoons running through classroom-appropriate labs and fine-tuning the experiments (all available at www.biobuilder.org) for a high school setting.
The labs, which included Eau That Smell, What a Colorful World, iTunes Device, and the newly-introduced VitaYeast, put a spin on commonly taught Advanced Placement (AP) biology concepts while introducing students to a more realistic experimental setting, in which lab results do not always reflect the outcomes predicted by hypotheses.
By reaching out to teachers, the BioBuilder program seeks to magnify its impact on students through introducing new concepts and activities for the teachers to implement in the classroom. With its emphasis on engineering in biology, the program accelerates design-oriented problem solving in high school students, said Hart.
“By leading with engineering problems, the program introduces creative thinking, which is necessary in science but not selected for early enough,” said Hart, a member of Jasper Rine’s lab.
In addition to helping teachers revamp their curricula, the program also offers invaluable networking opportunities. The BioBuilder program presents participants with a unique opportunity to connect with both educators and synthetic biology experts, creating a community in which members share ideas for adapting labs to classroom realities or collaborate to develop teaching strategies beyond the program. Former participants also add to the community by reaching out to other educators interested in synthetic biology.
“I absolutely loved the class and have recommended it to three teachers that I supply with Amgen Biotech Experience kits and supplies,” said Grace Montgomery, an instructor at the Los Angeles/Orange County Biotech Center. “The BioBuilder program is top notch and you can tell the instructors are passionate about their program. I will continue to pass on the information about BioBuilder and the opportunities available once you have done the workshop.”
While the teachers benefitted from being immersed in the community at BioBuilder, taking the lessons back to their high schools presented a challenge, said Tuason, who champions science instruction at her high school near Burbank, California.
“Implementing these lessons at the high school requires a lot more planning and modifying since most high schools don’t have all the tools and equipment that you would normally see in a research lab at the university such as micropipettors, incubators, water bath, microcentrifuge, freezers, spectrophotometers,” Tuason said. “BioBuilder will send you all the materials that you need to perform the labs such as plasmids, cells, nutrient broth, agar plates and other disposables. However, you must provide your own equipment.”
In the end, both program facilitators and workshop participants walked away with new insights into teaching biology.
“The most rewarding part of the experience is being able to interact with these amazing educators,” Hart said. “It’s so useful, asking them for feedback on how to pick lab partners for example, and to pick up on the teachers’ practical experience.”
In addition to furthering the instructors’ educations, BioBuilder has since created a positive impact at the high school student level by giving teachers the tools necessary for introducing the novel concepts of synthetic biology.
“The BioBuilder workshop was fantastic because it allowed me to go back to my days of schooling where we were provided with current research and we could apply our knowledge and skills to learn about new scientific techniques,” said Elizabeth Cox, science teacher at Granada Hills Charter High School. “It was great to be the student again. My students have benefited from my new found passion, which is directly connected to the wonderful educational staff, terrific guest speakers, and the comfortable and supportive overall environment.”