Purdue workshop prepares high school teachers, students for global synthetic biology competition

June 27, 2012

High school students and teachers from Indiana and Kansas participated in Purdue's BioBuilding 2012 workshop to prepare for this month's International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition at Greenfield (Ind.) Central High School. Conducting research in a Bindley Bioscience Center laboratory in Discovery Park, from left, are Blue Valley High School Corrine Andresen, Davina Shogbamimu, bioscience teacher Eric Kessler and Hannah McCready, all of Blue Valley High School in Overland Park, Kan. (Purdue University photo/Vince Walter)

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Thanks to biotechnology and biological engineering professors at Purdue University, several high school students and their teachers are better prepared for this week's International Genetically Engineered Machines competition on synthetic biology research.

More than 40 teams from across the globe will compete in the event, known as iGEM High School, including 30 U.S. teams, seven from Asia and four from Europe. Greenfield (Ind.) Central High School is serving as host for the international event, which begins Saturday (June 30).

"Why teach synthetic biology? Synthetic biology provides high school teachers and students an engineering context to learn molecular biology, genetic engineering and microbiology methods," said Kari Clase, a biotechnology professor in the College of Technology.

"This approach asks students to learn while designing, or testing designs of, engineered biological systems. It also provides science teachers with a means of exploring numerous state and national technology standards that are hard to address in most science classes."

Clase and fellow biological engineering professor Jenna Rickus of the College of Agriculture led the BioBuilding 2012 workshop at Purdue in early June, exposing high school teachers and students from Indiana and Kansas to innovative teaching and research techniques in synthetic biology, biotechnology and other areas.

Assisted by several Purdue undergraduate and graduate students, the high school students and teachers also worked in research labs and classroom activities in Discovery Park's Bindley Bioscience Center and elsewhere on campus, gaining insight into what it takes to start, nurture and successfully compete as an iGEM team at the high school level.

Greenfield chemistry and physics teacher Rebecca Schini participated in the Purdue BioBuilding 2012 workshop and is lead organizer for this week's iGEM competition.

"This experience has been very exciting, because it has exposed me to terrific professors here at Purdue and other bright high school teachers and students," said Hannah McCready, who will be a senior this fall at Blue Valley High School in Overland Park, Kan.

"It's also really impressive to see how Purdue is investing in resources and labs in Discovery Park and elsewhere on campus. This has helped me make a list of the things I need to look for when I'm looking at colleges for a degree in biomedical engineering and possibly medical school."

An emerging field, synthetic biology applies engineering and mathematical principles to the development of novel biological systems. These principles and technologies extend the teaching of molecular genetic techniques into real world, authentic applications, such as bacteria that smell like bananas, and light-sensitive bacteria that can serve as pixels in a photograph.

"It's been great being immersed with all the knowledge, technology and diversity at Purdue," said Kevin O'Brien, who will be a junior this fall at North Montgomery High School in Crawfordsville. "All the new buildings and research facilities in Discovery Park have fired me up about possibly attending Purdue. It's blown away my expectations about Purdue."

Several high school teachers also gained materials and ideas for developing compelling curricula and cutting-edge content for college-bound students interested in subjects ranging from math and engineering to biology and electronics.

BioBuilding workshop equipped teachers in the STEM fields - science, technology, engineering and mathematics - with a more rigorous curriculum for motivating high-achieving students. Schini said this year's workshop was a terrific tune-up for the iGEM students and teachers, exposing them to cutting-edge research in high-tech labs.

Schini started the iGEM High School competition in 2010. Since 2004, iGEM has been a competition in synthetic biology research for college students and teams. 

"These kids are amazing," said Schini, who spent eight years as an industry microbiologist before becoming a high school teacher. "Many STEM competitions are national. Now, iGEM High School is an international competition that helps these students reach a global community. As teachers, we should harness this ability of the teenage brain to help solve global challenges."

Fellow Greenfield biology teacher John Rihm participated in the Purdue BioBuilding workshop and is coaching this year's Greenfield iGEM team.

Rickus said the BioBuilding activities are ideal for helping the high school teachers and students understand how simple biological systems can be built from standard, interchangeable parts and operate in living cells.

"The cross-discipline nature of the activities and the iGEM competition teaches students how to collaborate and critically think to find solutions to major scientific problems," she said.

BioBuilder was started by Massachusetts Institute of Technology biological engineering professor Natalie Kuldell in 2007 in response to requests for synthetic biology learning materials from policymakers, environmental groups and others needing to know more about the basic biology involved, as well as scientists wanting to know more about engineering aspects of the field.

Writer: Phillip Fiorini, 765-496-3133, pfiorini@purdue.edu

Sources: Kari Clase, 765 494-4649, klclase@purdue.edu

                 Jenna Rickus, 765 494-1197, rickus@purdue.edu