Synthetic biology education, beginning in high school, touted as impetus for STEM careers, research advances

A University of Lethbridge professor sees synthetic biology as a driver of the next generation of scientific researchers and a key to economic diversification and prosperity in southern Alberta and beyond.

Dr. H.J. Wieden and his group at the U of L have been at the forefront of Canadian participation in iGEM competitions for the last decade.

Dr. Hans-Joachim Wieden, an Alberta Innovates Strategic Chair in Bioengineering in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and director of the Alberta RNA Research and Training Institute (ARRTI), says in a recently published article in the world-leading journal Nature Biotechnology that engaging students in synthetic biology projects enhances their desire to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers and ultimately leads to advances benefitting society both economically and socially. This training is even more impactful when it begins at the high school level and is in step with the high school curriculum in the province of Alberta.

His vehicle of choice – high school iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machines) competitions.

“The transdisciplinary nature of synthetic biology projects creates a powerful learning opportunity for high school students by combining aspects of biology, chemistry, computer science, mathematics, engineering and social studies,” says Wieden. “I believe that synthetic biology projects integrate well into the high school curriculum and can provide a dynamic training environment for students and add an excellent engagement and education tool, allowing students to explore the scientific, as well as ethical, legal and social implications of the field.”

Wieden and his group at the U of L have been at the forefront of Canadian participation in iGEM competitions for the last decade, winning 10 gold medals and launching a high school program encouraging participation both locally and provincially.

The primary aim of synthetic biology is to apply engineering principles to biological systems, and in turn produce a desirable trait or behaviour. The most notable success of synthetic biology is the engineering of artemisinic acid biosynthesis in yeast, a technology being used to produce anti-malarial treatments.

Locally, high school iGEM teams have produced project ideas tackling environmental issues (desalinization, chlorofluorocarbon degradation), health (diabetes, cancer detection) and agriculture (safe pesticides). Each project is student-driven and executed and supported by U of L graduate student teaching units. The projects provide an opportunity for hands-on, experiential research currently unavailable in the high school curriculum.

“This is not just about training scientists; this is about training the next generation of bioengineers and entrepreneurs,” says Wieden, noting the desire to continue to diversify the provincial economy. “Precision agriculture is the next big thing in biotechnology and that will require well-trained bioengineers and we are in an excellent position to do that.”

Wieden points to the University’s Destination Project, scheduled to open in 2019, and its focus on transdisciplinary learning, which is reflected in the study of synthetic biology and particularly in iGEM training. Taking this to the high school level further prepares the next generation of students for post-secondary and career success. To do so, however, challenges must be overcome. Securing supplies, materials, equipment and funding to support high school iGEM projects can prove difficult for some teams, but Wieden says the results are worth the investment, and the University can help lower some of the barriers.

Already, the U of L has offered workshops, supported by Synbridge, for provincial high school teams. Further, there is a proposal to create professional development programs for high school teachers and their students to better equip them to run their own iGEM programs.

“Synthetic biology provides an excellent training environment for students due to the multidisciplinary nature of the field in general and the iGEM competition in particular,” he says. “The significant social, environmental and economic implications of synthetic biology cannot be overstated and I believe it is imperative we provide educational opportunities to interested students as early as possible.”

A link to the full Nature article can be found here: