October 26, 2017

Putting synthetic biology in the hands of high school students

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Penn GSE's Yasmin Kafai is bringing the new field of synthetic biology into Philadelphia high schools.

Kafai is collaborating with PennDesign's Orkan Telhan to develop affordable, safe, and user-friendly synthetic biology wetlab kits for high school students. Students use the kits to build genetic circuits, which they insert into microorganisms to manipulate the color, smell, and shape of the organisms.

In this collaborative biodesign project between Penn GSE and PennDesign, high school students and teachers engage in synthetic biology by building genetic circuits that let microorganisms change color, smell, and shape.

Until now, this technology has been available only in university and corporate labs.

As part of the curriculum developed by Kafai’s team, students consider potential real-world applications for the synthetic genes they create, such as next-generation water contamination sensors. Students are also prompted to think about the kinds of STEM careers that will advance the field of synthetic biology.

"I think it's one of our responsibilities as educators not just to introduce students to relevant content and science practices, but also to open their eyes and ears and minds to what is out there in the world, so they gain a broader understanding of what science or engineering can be about," Kafai says.

A longtime leader in the learning sciences, Kafai was recently named the inaugural Lori and Michael Milken President’s Distinguished Professor in Education. This innovative “biomaker” project is one of several National Science Foundation grants she's received in her distinguished career. 

Earlier this month, Kafai received a lifetime achievement award for her work in the area of constructionism at the FabLearn Conference at Stanford Graduate School of Education. The organizers gave the award for “someone whose legacy is in equal part the research and development she has done and the innumerable young scholars she has mentored.”

Kafai’s award plaque was constructed by students in fablearnlab Thailand, and was a special challenge to get through airport security.