Natalie McLeod and Mike McKillop
Our original idea centered around DIY biology and synthetic biology. Similar to the maker space that we visited, there are similar spaces in some cities focused on synthetic biology. We wanted the students to research the ideas around synthetic biology and DIY biology and then write their own proposals.
The project allowed teachers to let the students explore a very interesting but diverse topic on their own and allow them to focus on their interest. Teachers are unable to keep up with all the rapid developments in field of synthetic biology and this project allowed the students do some of the legwork. We learned a lot from their projects.
For the students, the projects allowed them to develop a number of skills and dispositions that they will be able to further develop in their academic careers. Their understanding of synthetic biology was vastly improved – the general idea of it but for some groups also to a very high level of technical expertise. They saw opportunities for future research as well.
Some of the most highlighted student findings were:
· Time management – a project spread out over 4 months and 2 semesters challenged them but also provided opportunities. They really appreciated the small deadlines along the way
· How difficult creative can be. For many, coming up with initial topic was tough.
· Learning how to be critical of online materials. Most eventually found academic journals and resources to be most valuable
· Many used Google docs for the first time and found it very powerful
· Using APA referencing style. Most hated it at first but found it easy to work with after the initial learning curve. They saw the value in it.
· Having to pitch their project in 5 minutes. Distilling 4 months of work into 5 minutes was challenging but useful. They enjoyed the business aspect of the project as they were competing for funding.
The project stimulated a number of conversations ranging from the nature of scientific inquiry and original research to ethics and environmental issues. These conversations not only occurred in class but also between students as they were working on their projects.
A few weeks after the completion of this project, we observed an unexpected positive outcome of this type of inquiry. During a field study, students were required to develop their own thesis for a snow ecology study and then investigate it with very little preamble. This year, students seemed more at ease with this process than in previous years.
Having students apply the design process to a project in synthetic biology really had them thinking about the nature of science. It was no longer about the content, the students had to be creative and problem solve using their own knowledge and then search for reputable sources to help them further develop their ideas. Working in teams, they not only worked through technical aspects of synthetic biology but also explored how it could be used to solve environmental or health issues. Topics for the projects ranged from estrogen biosensors, biofuels and disease detection to bioremediation and the breakdown of plastics in the environment.
Students had the time to think deeply about a topic, develop their ideas and learn from their failures. Many for the first time, had to access scientific journals and evaluate current research in a field that they were learning about.