Building with Biology at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

February 6, 2017

by Spencer Glantz, University of Pennsylvania

Over the last few years, Spencer Glantz, a bioengineering PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania, has helped to grow and advise the Penn iGEM team, worked with museum educators at The Franklin Institute to develop prototype activities for Building with Biology, and volunteered at the Institute’s public Building with Biology event in summer 2016. These experiences prepared him to start his own partnership with a youth group at his synagogue, Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel (BZBI), to develop a program about the field of synthetic biology. Teenagers ranging in age from 7th - 12th grade gathered at BZBI in Philadelphia on Saturday, December 17th to think about the societal and ethical implications of synthetic biology research. BZBI Community Engager Terri Soifer started off the "Teaching Torah to Teens" program by discussing the week's Torah portion, which dealt with the biblical character Jacob and his experience wrestling with God. That was the perfect launching point for a lively debate about a very modern topic with which we wrestle, namely, should we use technology to engineer synthetic-biology based food products? Spencer and Terri led the group through the Building with Biology Bio Bistro hands-on activity. Teens excitedly pointed out the environmental benefits of using microorganisms like yeast to make products we typically extract from natural sources, such as vanilla beans. Yet, they also tried to weigh those benefits against negative outcomes, including potential job losses in the agricultural sector. In fact, the teens were so engaged with the topic that Spencer and Terri decided not to introduce the second activity they had planned so the discussion could continue. Spencer’s collaboration with BZBI, facilitated by The Franklin Institute and the Building with Biology project, was enjoyed by all and is a great example of how to involve teenagers, who might not otherwise be aware of synthetic biology, in thought-provoking conversations about science.