Biohealth Learning Lab and Makerspace for the Community

Biology has become a powerful and revolutionary technology, uniquely poised to transform and propel innovation in the near future. The skills, tools, and implications of using biological systems to design solutions to global challenges, however, are still largely foreign and inaccessible to the general public. Industries of today and tomorrow need creative, independent problem solvers, yet early biology education is often still very didactic and memorization heavy. We need new ways to inspire and equip young people from diverse backgrounds to meaningfully participate in the landscape of modern biology and biotechnology.

In response to this need, The Tech Interactive created the Biotinkering Lab as an experimental bio-makerspace and hands-on learning lab. These approaches were chosen because of the demonstrated effectiveness of making, tinkering, and design challenge learning to foster confidence, creative capacity, and problem-solving skills in diverse participants. With the help of our 5-year NIH-SEPA grant, Biohealth Learning Lab and Makerspace for the Community, we are developing a repertoire of novel bio-making programs and hands-on genetics activities to activate our space and make biotechnology and living systems accessible to everyone. 

Overall Project Aims

  • Create and test a groundbreaking museum bio-makerspace and hands-on learning lab with novel experiences that make biology and biotech accessible to everyone

  • Foster in visitors creativite capacity, knowledge, problem-solving skills, and confidence with using biology and living systems

  • Inspire and equip young people from diverse backgrounds to explore STEM careers in biology-related fields

  • Highlight biology as a modern problem-solving space and help the public explore associated benefits, cautions, and responsible practices

  • Evaluate, document, and share our learnings and resources with other institutions, educators, and the broader field

Stanford Partnership

The new NIH-SEPA grant works alongside the “Stanford at The Tech” program. Program participants are invited to help prototype and develop new activities, gaining experience in the museum activity design process while providing the Tech with deep scientific expertise. Participants enjoy career development opportunities, practice in communicating with a lay audience, the chance to bring their research interests to the public, and the challenge of translating lab protocols to a more open-ended and kid-friendly setting.

Biotinkering Lab Experience Goals

Each activity in the Biotinkering Lab is custom developed with the following goals:

  1. Enable everyone to experiment, create, and problem solve using biology.

  2. Provide opportunities for direct engagement with novel lab tools, ideas, and organisms.

  3. Support curiosity-driven exploration and tinkering with biological systems.

  4. Foster confidence and STEM identity with a combination of fun and authentic science.

  5. Inspire and excite participants about the future possibilities of biotechnology.


At Home Resources

Activities on The Tech Interactive at Home (Link)

  • Algae String
    Use a powder from living kelp and chemistry to create and customize your own biodegradable string.
    Find the activity guide and more on our website!   English | Spanish 
  • Cabbage Inks
    Turn red cabbage into your own rainbow of color-changing paints that you can use to create art.
    Find the activity guide and more on our website!   English | Spanish 
  • Making with Microbes
    Collaborate with living microbes to design, mix and grow your own custom piece of biomaterial.
    Find the activity guide and more on our website!   English | Spanish 

Activities in Partnership with CoBuild (Link)

  • DNA extraction
    Use everyday items in your kitchen to investigate the DNA in your food. Then create something with the DNA you extracted. What can you do with it?
    View the Activity Guide.
  • Family Tree Art
    Biological family trees are used by scientists to show how different living things are related to each other. Create your own piece of artwork that is based on a biological family tree!
    View the Activity Guide.


Classroom Resources

Lesson Plans on The Bowers Institute (Link)

  • Algae String
    This three-session lesson plan for middle grades uses open-ended exploration to introduce students to biopolymers and the chemistry behind cross-linking. Students will draw inspiration from biology and use authentic scientific practices to design and create colorful string creations from a natural polymer, alginate.
    View the Lesson Plan.


In-Person Facilitated Programs

Pop-up Activity #3: DNA Markers

Create a highly personalized watercolor marker! Visitors extract and look at their very own DNA, learning more about their own genetic instruction manual. Then they mix up dyes to make their color of choice, dissolve their DNA into the water-based ink, and absorb their DNA-ink into a felt-tip marker. The result is a unique marker that allows visitors to doodle with their very own DNA!

Semi-Permanent Program #3: Algae String (not yet launched)

As The Biotinkering Lab prepares to reopen to the public, we’re developing a new activity! Visitors will get to use a powder harvested from living kelp and other colorful supplies to design, mix, and shape their own piece of biodegradable string. This exciting chemistry will turn a squishy gel into a solid string right before your eyes because of something called cross-linking. While the activity is early in development, we’re excited for Algae String to give visitors insight into how these materials could eventually be used to replace synthetic fibers in everyday objects such as plastics.  

Pop-up Activity #2: Ancient DNA

Explore how DNA can be used to uncover stories of people who lived hundreds -- or thousands! -- of years ago. See how it is possible to go from bones, to DNA sequences, to reconstructing the story behind the bones. Explore the lives of people like Ӧtzi the Iceman, a 5000 year old mummy found facedown in a glacier in the Alps; Cheddar Man, a 10,000 year old skeleton from England; the Sunrise Child, an 11,000 year old baby from Alaska; or Arzhan, a 2500 year old horse from Siberia. Using DNA sequences, discover what they looked like, what they may have eaten, diseases they may have had, and more. Piece together their stories, reconstruct their lives, and share what you discover.

Semi-Permanent Program #2: Making with Microbes 

Explore and experiment with a unique new biomaterial grown right here at The Tech Interactive! A community of tiny living organisms do the hard work of manufacturing the biomaterial, but they need help to do so. Visitors decide the final look and feel of the biomaterial by choosing what to feed the microbes. Some materials are leather-like and strong, others more plastic-like or delicate. Some are colorful, others are neutral. In this multi-step activity, visitors first get to design and create their own food mixture. Over the next week the microbes will use it to grow a custom biomaterial based on that design. Meanwhile, they can embed a texture into some freshly grown biomaterial and create something to take home with a fully dried piece from a previous visitor. This biomaterial is so easy and inexpensive to grow, anyone who wants can keep experimenting at home!

Pop-up Activity #1: Gene editing with CRISPR

Explore the promise and limits of new DNA editing tools. Use CRISPR/Cas9 to change a gene in yeast, making them turn red instead of tan. Put your newly edited yeast on an agar plate to grow -- yeast take a few days to turn into colonies! Check the results of your experiment online a few days later, and dive deeper into the technology behind the experiment.

Semi-Permanent Program #1: Bio Inks 

Harvest, tinker and create with a natural bio-pigment produced by living bacteria. To do this, we leverage the innate abilities of a humble little soil bacteria called Streptomyces violaceoruber. The bacteria — which are grown in petri dishes in The Tech Interactive’s bio lab — do most of the work by manufacturing this pigment inside their cells and releasing it. Visitors are tasked with the challenge of figuring out how to extract and collect the pigment from the agar. Then, the unique pH-sensitivity of the pigment means visitors can play with chemistry to alter its color before contributing it to our depository to be turned into one-of-a-kind bio ink for future visitors to get artistic with! Bio Inks is a fun peek into how scientists are exploring the possibilities of using biological systems like bacteria to produce inks through more sustainable processes.

Semi-Permanent Program #0: Mushroom Bricks

Grow bricks and building blocks using nature’s technology — living mushrooms! The process is simple, but impressive. First, choose a 3D-printed mold. Then stuff it with wood particles (agricultural byproduct) that have been inoculated with mushroom mycelium. Set it on a tray to let the “brick” begin to grow. After about 1 week of growth, it’s done! The mycelium acts like natural glue to bind the material together. It can now be dried and baked to stop the brick from continuing to grow. The whole process takes days because you are working with a living thing, so you may not be able to admire brick that you started today, but you can examine and help finish those made by visitors before you. These objects reuse agricultural waste and are compostable, making them a sustainable building material of the future. 

The activities were made possible by a Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).