BioBuilder lab among students, Kuldell says, is called “Eau That Smell,” which involves examining bacteria engineered to smell like ripe bananas at a certain stage of their growth. Students also enjoy “What a Colorful World,” a lab where students study E. coli programmed to change colors. Another lab, “Golden Bread,” has students add beta-carotene to baker’s yeast. (Image: Jose-Luis Olivares/MIT)

BioBuilder labs include “Eau That Smell” (bacteria engineered to smell like ripe bananas at a certain stage of their growth),“What a Colorful World” (E. coli programmed to change colors), and “Golden Bread” (adding beta-carotene to baker’s yeast). (Image: Jose-Luis Olivares/MIT)

Bringing Synthetic Biology Education to Life

Rob Matheson | MIT News Office
December 4, 2015

Synthetic biology — which involves engineering biological systems for new uses — has become an increasingly prominent, and promising, field of study in colleges and universities worldwide.

Research has yielded, for example, viruses that attack harmful bacteria, yeasts that produce biofuels, and engineered microorganisms capable of detecting toxins in the environment, among many other innovations.

Yet high school students rarely learn about synthetic biology at all, says Natalie Kuldell, an instructor of biological engineering at MIT. The issue, she says, is lack of accessible, hands-on curricula for such a rapidly developing field.

“With subjects like physics, for instance, you can demonstrate engineering by building Rube Goldberg machines or model bridges,” Kuldell says. “But it’s hard to think how to bring engineering to biology for high school students.”

In partnership with high school teachers, Kuldell launched the BioBuilder Educational Foundation in 2011 to provide schools with lab kits and lesson plans — adapted from her own MIT curriculum and MIT research labs — to boost interest and innovation in the field.

Today, more than 400 teachers in 43 states are using the formal BioBuilder curriculum. Some have also adapted the coursework for middle school students. Many other teachers worldwide incorporate some of the material, which is freely available online, into their lesson plans.

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In Dr. Kuldell’s OCW course 20.020 Introduction to Biological Engineering Design, you can see how she introduces MIT undergraduates to synthetic biologyIn addition to BioBuilder animations, this content-rich course includes detailed week-by-week notes on each design and lab activity, examples of student project work, and teaching notes that fill in pedagogical background.