Bringing Synthetic Biology to High School Students

Penn professors are collaborating to bring the new field of synthetic biology into Philadelphia high schools.

The Graduate School of Education’s Yasmin Kafai and the School of Design’s Orkan Telhan are developing 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.

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

The Penn team worked with high school students and teachers from two Philadelphia schools to gain insights during development of the kit prototypes and curriculum protocols: the Philadelphia Performing Arts–A String Theory Charter School, and the Science Leadership Academy at The Franklin Institute.

“They are literally participating in something which is cutting-edge,” Kafai says. “This is one of the first projects where students are not just using synthetic biology but they are also designing with it.”

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 is the inaugural Lori and Michael Milken President’s Distinguished Professor in Education, as well as chair of GSE’s Teaching, Learning and Leadership Division. Telhan is an associate professor of fine arts, emerging design practices in PennDesign.

The biodesign project is funded by a National Science Foundation grant.

Photo: Aurora MacRae-Crerar, a lecturer in Penn’s Department of Biology, teaching at the Philadelphia Performing Arts–A String Theory Charter School.

Bringing Synthetic Biology to High School Students