Teaching Synthetic Biology

I recently found this fascinating (relatively) old review article (open access) by awesome MIT professor Natalie Kuldell about teaching synthetic biology. Synthetic biology has integrated teaching and learning with the development of the field since basically the beginning of the field, with students contributing to new technologies through iGEM and academic lab-based courses. By actively participating in a new field students get a unique educational experience, and the field benefits through the work of students being trained as engineers and biologists:

Synthetic biology, with its inclusive content and uncertain outcome, can be used to educate the skilled and responsible thinkers we hope to produce. The newness of the terrain engages students as stakeholders who learn that their viewpoints matter and that their ideas are actionable. Teaching synthetic biology is hampered by the limited number of robust systems that can be converted to teaching materials and by the dearth of standardization and characterization in existing synthetic biology exemplars. Nonetheless, it’s today’s students who can contribute to the growth of the field and who will soon become practitioners poised to realize the positive outcomes for biology by design.

It’s been exciting as a graduate student to be able to participate in the development and definition of a new field, and a lot of fun this summer working with undergrads as they learn about how to do molecular biology in the context of synthetic biology and genetic engineering. Things will change as the hundreds of students that learned how to do science and engineering through iGEM start going to grad school and teaching other people, as “interdisciplinary” gives way to a new discipline:

synthetic biology is a distinct discipline that requires its practitioners to work in ways remarkably different from the work that defines any traditional niche. Biologists who come to synthetic biology must manage complexity, rather than describe and celebrate it. Engineers must build using material under evolutionary pressures. Students who enter synthetic biology perceive the promise and limitations of the emerging discipline and because they have yet to categorize themselves as either “engineer” or “scientist,” these students do not see the need to collaborate as much as they see the need to parse out the problems themselves and then systematically develop the skills to solve them.

“Authentic teaching and learning through synthetic biology.” Journal of Biological Engineering, 2007.