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Educating the Educators: Joining Forces for a New High School Curriculum

A year of meaningful partnerships continues for our STEM education program, FirstHand, as we recently joined forces with a Cambridge, MA-based organization, to help bring a new curriculum into high school classrooms.

Last month, BioBuilder, powered by Lab Central at BioLabs New England, hosted a two-day professional development workshop at the FirstHand lab. The course was designed to train high school teachers in synthetic biology; a discipline combining science and engineering to construct enzymes, cells and other biological systems.

An initial interest was sparked when Natalie Kuldell, PhD, founder and executive director of the BioBuilder Educational Foundation, was in town touring BioLabs Philly. Site Director Melina Blees coordinated a meeting for Natalie and the FirstHand team (who also call 3675 Market Street home) to discuss how the two programs’ work overlaps.

Established as a non-profit in 2011, the BioBuilder curriculum is now being used and replicated both in the U.S. and internationally, with a presence across 43 states and 30 countries through student clubs, teacher PDs, high school apprenticeships, and more.

When the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) offered to provide scholarships for teachers from urban districts to attend BioBuilder professional development for free, Dr. Kuldell immediately thought Philadelphia would be a great place to hold the workshop. She reached out to her newfound network at FirstHand and asked if they could, in addition to hosting, share the opportunity with any local teachers they had worked with over the years who wanted to apply.

One such example is Brian Horn from Paul Robeson High School in West Philadelphia, a 9th through 12th grade biology teacher, whose students participated in FirstHand programming. Having accompanied the kids on their first day last year to ensure they were settled and to oversee their orientation, he already possessed a certain level of familiarity of FirstHand. But the BioBuilder course was a revelation to him: “I’m starting to see how synthetic bio is sort-of a separate category from just engineering or biological engineering. If anything, this has opened my eyes to the fact that it’s not challenging. We are capable of bringing this curriculum to a high school level both in terms of education as well as resources. I always thought that this was upper-division college stuff; I didn’t experience it until I was almost done with college! So, it’s a huge wake-up call. I had no clue.”

Further bridging the two, was researcher Justice Toshiba Walker, Ph.D., who collaborated with FirstHand to design its own synthetic biology curriculum, Biomake, and also helped facilitate the workshop in Philadelphia.

Having worked with both organizations, Dr. Walker is uniquely qualified to shed light on why this joint effort works, “The FirstHand lab is a great space for professional development because by design its “Biomakerspace” fosters experimentation, design, tinkering, and play.  To my mind, there is nothing like this in the region—where a teacher can learn about the many ways synthetic biology is disrupting how we interact with microbes and then proceed with doing those activities.  BioBuilder brings a robust set of activities that involve programming, testing, and optimizing microbes as if they were manufacturing units or robots—this is a paradigmatically different way of thinking about and doing genetic engineering. Together, FirstHand's lab and BioBuilder's programming coalesce to ignite something far different than I've ever experienced in delivering teacher professional development.”

And when it comes to the FirstHand lab, Brian agrees and can attest to just how conducive the space is for a hands-on experience in educating students and teachers alike: “I always learn new things about this space. My kids were here first, when FirstHand was working with some of the Robeson High School students. One of the things that I thought was so interesting at that point, that I was really happy to be involved with, was that the kids weren’t just going to a space to learn; they were going to a space to learn and apply it and create product. To see that growth from an idea into an actual product, and everything in between, was phenomenal to me. And now it’s amazing that I’m here seeing that it can also be applied to biology. It’s linear but it’s not directional- does that makes sense?”

Makes perfect sense if you ask us.  

For more information about justice and his research, visit: