In 2018, educators and administrators at Kingsport City Schools in Kingsport, Tennessee, were dreaming big for ways to offer their high school students science lessons in advanced, college-level subjects that included hands-on investigations of real-world challenges. They faced several challenges to making that big dream a reality: They needed to select appropriate subjects, identify hands-on investigations for the students to conduct, integrate the advanced lessons into their curriculum, and obtain funding to purchase the proper materials.

An Innovative Collaboration is Born

In 2018, a Kingsport, TN school dreamed big and planned a world-class synthetic biology program for their students.

The Kingsport-based Eastman Foundation is the corporate responsibility arm of the Eastman Chemical Company. One of the foundation’s priorities is to partner with local schools to help build strong STEM programs for students, with the hope that some may become future Eastman scientists. The foundation’s leaders recognized the power of synthetic biology to drive future innovation in industry and medicine, and they were looking for a way to bring synthetic biology to the Kingsport schools.

The foundation reached out to BioBuilder Educational Foundation, a world leader in synthetic biology education. One of the many ways that BioBuilder encourages students to embrace synthetic biology is through their hands-on labs in which students conduct professional-level investigations. BioBuilder partners exclusively with Carolina Biological Supply Company (Carolina) to build lab kits for the BioBuilder curriculum.

Thus began a successful collaboration among Kingsport City Schools, the Eastman Foundation, BioBuilder, and Carolina. The result is world-class synthetic biology learning for students at Dobyns-Bennett High School.

Teacher Preparation

The first step was to train Dobyns-Bennett High School science teachers in the synthetic biology curriculum and labs. In January of 2019, BioBuilder provided a full week of hands-on training for the teachers at the BioBiulder facility in Massachusetts. The teachers conducted the Eau That Smell experiment using the BioBuilder curriculum and Carolina kits.

Teacher Amanda Blackburn described the experience. “At first, we were confused because we didn’t understand all the bits and pieces. But it made us realize what our students are probably going to do or ask and helped us figure out what we’re going to say or do in response. Then the second time we ran it, it was a walk in the park. It was much more user-friendly than we were letting it be the first time.”

As the beginning of the school year approached, BioBuilder staff traveled to Kingsport to work with the Dobyns-Bennett teachers again. They answered the teachers’ questions and watched them conduct the lab again, this time with some experience under their belts.

Implementation and Impact

In the fall of 2019, Dobyns-Bennett students began learning with the Eau That Smell kit. In this lab, students use professional-level techniques to change stinky bacteria into bacteria that smell like a banana. They learn how to grow microbial cells, measure the cells’ growth, analyze the genes on a molecular level, and learn basic synthetic biology concepts related to system design and logic gates.

The lessons are included in all biology classes: Introductory Biology, General Biology, and Honors Biology. This allows all levels of students to experience synthetic biology, from remedial students through advanced students. The teachers are delighted that a diverse number of students are enjoying and learning synthetic biology.

Ms. Blackburn explains how she sees her students being impacted by the BioBuilder lessons: “When we do the lab, we ask the kids, ‘If you were creating, what would you do? What problem would you solve? Where would you want to go with it?’ The student becomes the scientist in that role. They are the problem solvers. It gets them to start thinking in scientific and engineering ways, and it has been really exciting to see. I think their whole approach and understanding is stronger because they have this experience that ties things together.”

A Bright Future

The first year with BioBuilder was such a success that the Kingsport schools set an ambitious goal: to have all Dobyns-Bennett students experience synthetic biology by the time they graduate. They are confident it will happen thanks to the support they receive from their collaborators:

  • The BioBuilder team is always available to answer questions and provide guidance.
  • Carolina provides kits that make it easy for teachers to teach the labs and excellent technical support when teachers need additional assistance.
  • Scientists and engineers at Eastman Chemical act as mentors for the teachers and students.

Their commitment is driven by the benefits they see being realized by students.

As STEM Specialist Wendy Courtney explains, “It’s a game changer for some of the students to be doing what scientists do. When I’ve been in the classroom with them, the kids have their lab coats and safety goggles on, and they’re saying things like, ‘This is what scientists really do. I could do this. This would be a great job.’ It elevates their knowledge of what scientists do and the possibilities for themselves.”

The lab skills that students learn through these kits are the same skills that will translate into future science careers. As students develop these skills, they gain confidence to pursue careers in biotechnology fields.

Try it in Your Schools

Would you like your students to do what scientists do? It may be possible due to our federal government providing such a generous amount of education funding. Set up a program locally like Kingsport did and launch students with the skills they’ll need to launch their future careers.

Carolina Support for Dobyns-Bennett

Carolina is delighted to support synthetic biology learning at Dobyns-Bennet High School through a growing number of BioBuilder lab kits:

  • Eau That Smell
  • Golden Bread Transformation
  • Golden Bread PCR
  • iTune Device
  • What a Colorful World
  • Guiding Light

Dream Big: Impactful Projects

Find inspiration in this list of classroom projects.

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