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ARL Research Results in Commercial Spinoff of Science Teaching Kits

Dept. of Defense

BioBits kits are designed to be used by students and teachers with no biological training. They use simple, hands-on experiments, some using common household fruits, to teach the concepts of synthetic and molecular biology. (Courtesy photo by Wyss Institute at Harvard University/Army Research Laboratory)

An affordable children's educational kit is the latest commercial spinoff of research pursued by the U.S. Army to create advanced materials for soldier systems.

A team of researchers funded by the Army created and designed a new resource for science teachers. BioBit

TM is an educational platform for teaching synthetic biology from kindergarten through high school.

The team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and Northwestern University recently tested the platform in the Chicago Public Schools, with the help of students and teachers.

The test findings showed that students and teachers performed experiments successfully. The program fills a gap in current science, technology, math and engineering education, said Dr. Dawanne Poree, the Army's lead program manager on this project.

"The BioBitTM Explorer kit enables hands-on demonstrations of cutting-edge science that is inexpensive and easy-to-use, circumventing many current barriers for implementing exploratory biology experiments in classrooms," Poree said.

Chicago-area teachers partnered to develop curricula for high school math and middle school science classes, emphasizing the cross-cutting nature and the value of this activity at various educational levels, officials said.

The high cost and specialized equipment required for even the simplest demonstration of synthetic biology tools prevents many K-12 and some undergraduate schools from effectively teaching these methods, according to Poree.

"If the United States is to continue leading research in synthetic biology in the coming decades, then current students must be encouraged to pursue long-term study in this field," Poree said.

The kits are commercially available for $100 to $200 for enough materials for a classroom of about 30 students.

BioBits is based on the latest methods in synthetic biology. They incorporate methods for freeze-drying harmless cellular extracts into pellets that can be packaged and distributed to classrooms.

These pellets provide individual experiments that can be activated in the classroom to reveal the power of synthetic biology through predesigned reactions, said Dr. Michael Jewett of Northwestern University.

This platform grew out of prior and ongoing research funded by the Army Research Laboratory's Army Research Office to develop new tools in synthetic biology with the goal of adapting cellular machinery to produce non-biological materials.

Specifically, researchers were initially exploring the mechanisms of protein synthesis inside cells with the long-term goal of harnessing and adapting cellular machinery to produce non-biological materials. The research involves the development of new methods in synthetic biology that will be required to utilize powerful biological enzymes to create polymers of interest for the Army.

Research in synthetic biology will be essential in the 21st century for realizing scientific discoveries such as responsive materials; game-changing chemical, material, and drug manufacturing methods; detection and elimination of toxic chemicals; and medical applications ranging from the detection and treatment of traumatic brain injury to the development of integrated prosthetics.

This research was published in the August 2018 edition of Science Advances.

To view the original ARL article on the ARL website, visit https://www.arl.army.mil/www/default.cfm?article=3306.

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