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Integrating Science, Engineering, Design and Society

By Guest Blogger, Natalie Kuldell

I’m a scientist by training so—no big surprise– I’m excited to discover how the living world works. But new to me is just how powerfully students can learn the technical content when they try to build novel systems. Within the last few years of my teaching career I’ve had the chance to teach the engineering of biology and I’ve seen it bring a context and a joy to the hard work of learning. A student who wants a cell to do something interesting (detect a poison, fix a broken surface, make a medicine) will figure out how the proteins and DNA can work together to build a switch. The biology itself becomes a building material—the nouns and verbs that they can write sentences with, or

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the programming language that operates the “wetware.” When I ask the students to design and build, I see the book-learning move into the real world for them. When I put students into teams in order that they might benefit from each other’s ideas and talents, I preview the kind of professional they can someday become.

To bring this teaching approach out of MIT’s walls, I’ve put together the BioBuilder curriculum. The content brings current research questions into the classroom. Of course top research labs have a sophistication in their questions and resources that’s not reasonable for teachers in most settings. But we’ve taken questions that are at the heart of what’s going on in those labs, and converted them to lessons suitable for AP biology or intro biotechnology classes. We take advantage of the fact that students are comfortable working on line and learning through videos and animations. All the BioBuilder lessons start with comics that let students learn some of the basic vocabulary and sets up the design challenges. The students and teachers move from the online animations into the classroom and laboratory to carry out some activities. And finally, since students seem very comfortable with social networks, they post their data to the BioBuilder site, allowing them to compare what they’ve measured to what students at other schools have discovered. Scientists and engineers share their thinking and discoveries with the larger community, and we believe students should (actually want to!) do that too.

The material has been developed with a high school science teacher (Jim Dixon from Sharon High School in MA) who said from day 1 that he’s already got a fat textbook’s worth of content to cover in his classes, so he can’t add MORE to the curriculum. But he did think that the material already being taught could be cast with a more relevant and investigative framework. We’ve tried to do that through the BioBuilder activities. These give students a chance to learn by working at the edge of what’s possible rather than in the narrow confines of what’s known.

Final point to make is that BioBuilder students engage with a field that is poised to be THE technology of this century—changing the world the way computer science changed our lives at the end of the last one. The early assessment data we’ve collected from students suggests that the material is making sense to them and that their teachers are more confident approaching engineering within their biology classrooms—which is a terrific place to get at it.

As for the details of the BioBuilder content, I’d encourage anyone interested to visit the student or teacher portals that are open through the BioBuilder homepage. The activities are fully described there. The BioBuilder Educational Foundation has also been recently established to sustain the development of new BioBuilder modules, to teach teachers how to implement this content in their classrooms, and to expand the approach to other fields such as Physics, Math, Chemistry…all seem ripe and the students are definitely ready.

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