A Statewide Standard
During our outreach programs, we noticed that many students were ready to learn about synthetic biology, but had not yet been exposed to the science. To address this issue, our team worked with the Virginia Department of Education to update the Standards of Learning to include synthetic biology. Standards of Learning (SOL) dictate what subjects are taught in all public schools in Virginia; by altering them, we are exposing over a million students to relevant information about synthetic biology. Our team received NASA mini-proposal funding to support teachers in the change through the creation of a continuing education course. The course explores synthetic biology and its potential applications in space. In addition, we have partnered with Thermofisher Scientific to improve Virginia student access to bioengineering lab experiences.
Virginia Department of Education
Throughout our summer outreach, we noticed that most high school students were in the process of learning about DNA and genome editing; however, they had never been exposed to the modern applications and techniques used in bioengineering. After discussing with teachers and researching the current teaching standards, we learned that the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) had not been updated since 2010 and held an outdated representation of synthetic biology.
The Current Biology Standards State: The student will investigate and understand common mechanisms of inheritance and protein synthesis. Key concepts include exploration of the impact of DNA technologies.
The Standards and the 2010 Curriculum Framework do not include modern technologies like CRISPR-cas, DNA transformation, or the advancements of DNA sequencing. Instead, the standard and framework focus primarily on the human genome project, ethics and eugenics and cloning. These examples no longer encompass all that is possible and relevant in synthetic biology.
As synthetic biology grows it becomes more important for students of every discipline to have an up to date understanding of the science. Additionally, because synthetic biology is inherently multidisciplinary, students who hope to work in any STEM field will ultimately benefit from a strong understanding of bioengineering. To broaden our reach and ensure we could impact as many people as possible, our team decided to improve the Virginia Standards of Learning. Changing these standards benefits the 1,293,049 students currently enrolled in the Virginia public school system, and will have a lasting impact as more students enter and graduate from the Virginia school system.
We began by reaching out to Dr. Anne Petersen, the Virginia State Science Coordinator. Our email described the importance of updating the Virginia Science Standards to reflect the advancements made in synthetic biology. The email also included a proposal for a new science standard.
This email resulted in a lasting collaboration. Over the past months we have shared our activities booklet and corresponded extensively over email and over the phone to create a new biology standard representing synthetic biology under standard BIO. 5. The final draft of the standard was voted on by the Virginia Board of Education on October 18th. The standard reads:
BIO.5 The student will investigate and understand that there are common mechanisms for inheritance. Key ideas include...Synthetic Biology has biological and ethical implications.
The final email from Dr. Petersen with revisions of the standard can be found here.
Our team will now begin the collaboration on the curriculum framework for the synthetic biology standard. Our proposal includes the following information:
- Plasmids are small circular pieces of DNA
- Synthetic biology techniques utilize existing cellular mechanisms
- Transformations allows for the uptake and incorporation of external genetic material
- CRISPR/Cas systems can be used to target and alter specific DNA sequences
- Advancements in DNA sequencing have made synthetic biology research more accessible and led to a rise in DIY biology or Biohacking
- Synthetic biology has applications in a variety of disciplines including medicine, agriculture, research, energy, and travel
- Synthetic biology advancements have ethical implications which affect both animals and the environment
We will be working with the curriculum framework team until March when our framework will be up for public review. The final review of the framework will be in May and will then be voted upon. Once passed, the Department of Education will develop Continued Professional Development to support professionals in transitioning to the new Science Standards of Learning. Full implementation of our standards will be completed in 2021.
However, because Virginia’s standards are only updated every 7-8 years, and take over a year to update, many students are not being exposed to the most recent findings and research. To address this, our team is working with Dr. Petersen to create a resource for teachers which will provide information on the most relevant biotechnology advancements and applications. This living document will be managed by a team of vetted educators and education partners who will ensure the information presented is up to date and accurate. This document will also provide guidance for teachers hoping to integrate the new material into their classes. This novel program is currently in the developmental stages and will be implemented alongside the new Curriculum Framework following its approval.
Together, our new Standards of Learning, Curriculum Framework, and Advancements Tool will help prepare Virginia students with up to date lessons in synthetic biology and bioengineering, inspire the next generation of iGEMers, and prepare them to be informed members of the community.
To assist teachers in implementing these new standards and framework we have also created an education course for Virginia teachers. Details can be found in the NASA section.
What are Standards of Learning (SOLs)?
The Standards of Learning outline the expected learning outcomes for all 1,293,049 students in the Virginia Commonwealth. The standards are divided by subject once students reach secondary programs. All Virginia teaching professionals utilize the standards as the infrastructure for lesson planning, and subjects covered in the Standards of Learning are expected knowledge as evaluated on state examinations. The Standards of Learning apply both to specific knowledge and skill development. By integrating synthetic biology into the Standards of Learning, all Virginia students will be required to learn about this important field.
What is a Curriculum Framework?
The Curriculum Framework provides additional guidance for educators. The framework correlates to the standards of learning but provides more specific learning objectives for each standard. The framework is intended to amplify, clarify, and define the components of each Standard of Learning.
As a part of our Statewide outreach initiatives we wanted to connect with teachers and introduce them to new ways of teaching synthetic biology. With the support of a NASA Mini-Proposal we created a 10 subject course taught through William & Mary which will engage teachers by relating topics in synthetic biology to long term space travel and NASA. The descriptions for each lesson can be downloaded here.
- Introduction to Mars
- Synthetic Biology Techniques & Tool Kit
- Utilizing a Closed System
- Food on Mars
- Waste Management
- Water Reclamation and Recycling
- Diagnostic Tools & Ready Medicine
- Gas Exchange
The use of long term space travel generated a lot of excitement in the high school students who worked with us over the summer, and allowed us to explore up and coming bioengineering projects. The course provides teachers with advanced synthetic biology instruction while simultaneously conducting in-classroom activities which connect to the Virginia Science Standards of Learning.
Upon completion of this course teachers will receive credit toward their Virginia State Teacher Licence which must be renewed every five years.
This course will give teachers the background knowledge and lesson suggestions needed for the successful implementation of new synthetic biology research into their classrooms. The program varies in the complexity of the lessons depending on grade level. The higher level lessons include completing a series of wet lab experiments. These experiments help students develop a proficiency in bioengineering techniques, however, they require access to a lab, equipment, and reagents not always available at schools. To reduce these barriers we began a partnership with Thermofisher Scientific which will help improve student access to hands-on activities related to synthetic biology.
Registration for this course opens in November for teachers in the Williamsburg-James City County School District.
The original mini-proposal can be found here
Students learn best when they are able to relate what they learned in class to a hands on experience. Thus, laboratory experiments are ideal for establishing and building upon foundational knowledge. However, our lab cannot invite or visit all 29,000 students in our own district. As the Standards of Learnings are updated and more teachers begin incorporating synthetic biology into their classrooms, we are working to support them with the help of corporate partnerships.
This year, we connected with Jennifer Daugherty, a Regional Sales Manager for Thermofisher Scientific, to create a large scale program. The goal of this initiative is to improve student access to hands on synthetic biology experiences. We are currently working with Thermofisher and our community partners to create a program that will have the largest possible impact on the most students. Some program options create protective equipment kits including gloves, goggles, aprons etc. which would be distributed to students around the district. The other two programs connect researchers and iGEM members with students for a day of hands on experiences and challenges. The potential programs are outlined in this presentation.
We are in the early phases of this partnership, but the development of this program will benefit both the students who receive educational support, and the employees who have the opportunity to enjoy a day supporting science students in their community.