*Photo by Antoine Hunt
*Photo by Antoine Hunt

How can a relatively new scientific field be translated into something that high school students understand, and go on to inspire a love of learning?

Dr Natalie Kuldell is a biological engineer, a lecturer and a mother. She teaches in the Department of Biological Engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

However, she can never successfully grow a house plant in her home.

If she was looking for a solution to this problem she “might look around the natural world and find an organism that doesn’t need much water”.

She said she would take the genes from a camel and a firefly and add them to her plant to create  “a glowing, never thirsty plant”.

“Synthetic biology is drawing lessons from more mature and robust engineering disciplines and putting those into biology”.

Examples of these were standardization of design and fabrication tools. Just as computers started out as simple design processes in the 1980’s and evolved into the technology of today, so “synthetic biologists are trying to take a page from the same book”.

She summed up the science as “trying to standardize biological parts so they can reliably programme living cells”.

In formulating simple design processes, solutions could then be applied to some of the world’s most pressing problems, such as hunger (agriculture), medicines, biofuels and environmental issues.

Dr Kuldell said: “Synthetic biologists want to make the world better, but early on the greatest success came in an unexpected place — in the classroom.

“I’ve seen the power this approach has in exciting students about learning”.

Synthetic biology can inspire young people “to explore the world the way scientists do”, through physical experimentation.

“The formal education system can really dampen how students explore,” said Dr Kuldell.

“I have seen that with synthetic biology there is a re-excitement about exploration in my students.”

In creating BioBuilder, she works with teachers across the country, creating teaching modules in synthetic biology “that everyone can try”.

This encourages individual students to come up with ideas and answers to questions that exist in this field of science, and which they then share with others in their class.

“They carry out authentic investigations where they try to build things from biology,” she said.

“They have ownership of the data and talk about it with other students and classes.”

BioBuilder also “reawakens the teachers to their love of learning and love of teaching”.

“Because synthetic biology is a new field, where we don’t have all the answers, and we are building things from biology, I think BioBuilder has great potential and promise,” she said.

“Not only in building things from biology but to really progress the kind of education we would all like to see.”

See www.biobuilder.org