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Paradigm Shifts in Life Science Education: Opportunities and Challenges in an Era of Synthetic Biology


Guest post by Justice Toshiba Walker, PhD, University of Pennsylvania (email:


There is a gap in synthetic biology education, leaving people without an academic or entrepreneurial background out of the discussions of how modern biotechnologies will become a part of our everyday lives. Fortunately, there are a few education initiatives that make synthetic biology accessible to a broader audience. These efforts mark important opportunities for collaborations to shape conversations about the relationship between society and these burgeoning areas in life sciences.


Demographics of the Principles of Synthetic Biology MOOC course. Image by Anderson et al, 2019 (CC BY 4.0)

Life science education in the United States is an important area of education research due to issues related to workforce development and civic engagement.  That is to say, life science education has garnered significant attention as learning scientists and education researchers explore ways to support and sustain education pipelines that lead to occupational participation and innovation. In addition, efforts have examined ways to develop a society who is knowledgeable and able to engage with the field deeply and actively. As a result of these interests in education research, there have been active efforts to develop life science learning experiences that support these goals. The results are evidenced in both college and K-12 education systems that offer a broad range of majors, subject area foci, and topics in such life science fields as ecology, agriculture and medicine—to name a few.


While these outcomes would suggest that the state of life science education is on a trajectory toward reaching societal goals, important shifts are occurring that require that we expand our considerations about what it means to research life science, how we engage with the field, and what our priorities for education should be today and for future generations. These developments are being propelled by an emerging biotechnology known as synthetic biology.  While this area has been articulated in different ways, many of those characterizations describe synthetic biology as the process by which cells are—often genetically—manipulated or designed to generate cells or cellular outputs that serve some practical use or function.  Examples range from the development of microbially produced pigments or biomolecules (i.e., proteins or vitamins) to the use of whole organisms as environmental biosensors or as manufacturing material.


Photos from the Synthetic Genome course. Image by Blount and Ellis, 2018 (CC BY 4.0)

For the better part of the last decades, synthetic biology has been limited to university and commercial settings whose expertise and sophisticated lab spaces have made it possible to study and engage with synthetic biology with relative ease. While these developments have propagated significant progress and innovation in synthetic biology in terms of building community and developing bioeconomies, there exists a burgeoning gap between how K-12 groups learn life science and the way it occurs in industry and post secondary environments. This gap is further underpinned by the notion that future generations of students may not only be ill-equipped to further innovate in the workforce, but also not have the basic literacy skills necessary to make important personal and civic decisions about the synthetic biology, how its regulated (if at all), and how to contend with the continued impacts it will have on the planet.


In the past decade, however, the development of community labs, public exhibits, competitions, and low cost automated or portable wet lab tools—to name a few—has created incredible opportunities to overcome K-12 access challenges and therefore support a new era of life science learning that builds upon and expands the ways young learners engage with life science—to  include synthetic biology. This era represents a paradigmatic shift in life science education as learners are now able to productively engage with the living cells in ways that were not previously possible. While this would suggest that the problem of workforce development and civic engagement participation is solved—as K-12 age groups and non experts are now able to access these fields—there are still many questions around ways to support meaningful engagement in community labs, public exhibits or with tools.  In other words, these are questions around: (1) affordances and challenges that exist when learning about synthetic biology or related fields in community labs, public exhibits, or with tools (2) the relationship between these spaces or tools, and formal learning environments, and (3) the types of engagement that will support societal goals.



These are just a few of the broad and critical questions that should be explored as synthetic biology becomes more present in our education systems and our daily lives.  Already, there are efforts to demonstrate the potential tools and curriculum have to impact learning for both elementary and high school-aged students—efforts that further underscore a need for interdisciplinary collaboration between education researchers, educators, and scientists whose synergies can keep us ahead of issues related to workforce and civic engagement.  Such an effort would not only pioneer important research around ways to introduce synthetic biology to K-12 learning environments, but it would also provide opportunities to innovate contemporary life science learning frameworks thereby creating continuity between what students learn about life science in early grades and how they innovate within and contend with the field after high school and beyond.


Given the incredible progress happening on many fronts, we are at a pivotal moment for shaping the future of synthetic biology and the relationship society has with its myriad benefits.  Examples of how this can be accomplished include convening researchers and practitioners to collaboratively articulate literacy frameworks that describe the sorts of citizens we hope will steward this paradigm shifting technology and the planet.  This framework should include perspectives who can participate in the field and the nature of that participation in order to support innovation in classrooms, laboratories, and economies across the world.


Justice Toshiba Walker is a science education researcher, learning scientist, and post doctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education (PennGSE), where he examines the affordances and challenges emerging biotechnologies pose for middle and high school learning. His most recent research considers how design perspectives—namely BioDesign—fit in and extend existing middle school life science active learning paradigms (e.g., inquiry and problem based learning).  He also explores the ways BioDesign can support advanced literacy practices in argumentation with student groups who have little formal knowledge about synthetic biology and its various applications. For more information about Justice and his research, visit:

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