Partner Highlight: Building with Biology Within the Teen Science Café Network - Exploring the Cool and the Scary

November 1, 2016

by Kathryn Riddle Penzkover and Michelle K. Hall

The teen years are a time of exploring new frontiers and making important decisions that will change lives in ways that cannot be known. The same can be said for the field of synthetic biology - it is a time of great exploration and possibilities, myriad choices, and cautious trepidation of the unknown. Thus, it was fitting to host a science café for adult mentors of teen science café programs to introduce them to the field of synthetic biology and provide them with rich resources that can be used in a science café explicitly for teens. 

During the 2016 Teen Science Café Network annual workshop held August 21-24 at the Explora! Museum in Albuquerque New Mexico, 41 adult mentors of teen science café programs participated in a science café on synthetic biology led by Drs. Kathryn Penzkover and Stacey Forsyth of the University of Colorado—Boulder. The event was structured like a teen science café, which is designed to engage teens in exploration of the rapidly changing fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Through short, engaging presentations, followed by rich conversation and hands-on activities with an expert, teens can begin seeing their future through the lens of rapidly changing science and technology. They come to understand the nature of science and engineering discoveries and careers and become comfortable discussing science topics and weighing multiple perspectives before making a decision. The programs are led by teens, for teens, with the help of adult mentors.

Teen Science Café Network members work through the Kit of Parts hands-on activity

Dr. Penzkover gave a short presentation on synthetic biology that included a video of a TED talk by Dr. Jennifer Khan on how newly created gene drives can change entire species forever, which led to a discussion of the social implications of such a choice. A second video described the nuts and bolts of this relatively simple use of the CRISPR system to create these gene editing machines. Dr. Penzkover then led participants in an activity from the Kit of Parts from the Building with Biology kit. They engaged in discussions on how to use synthetic biology to solve the following problems: locating environmental toxins, making renewable plastic, making synthetic blood, treating cancer and producing a drug to treat malaria. They also engaged in discussions around the Building with Biology’s “Should We Engineer the Mosquito?” forum. This was followed by a lively discussion about the science and societal impacts of synthetic biology.    

Dr. Kathryn Riddle Penzkover introduces the participants to the fundamentals of synthetic biology

The event was a great success in introducing the adult mentors to the field of synthetic biology, and providing them with high quality materials to engage teens in exploring the science, ethics, and technologies. Leaders of teen science cafés can find scientists with expertise in this area, but the scientists do not always know how to break down the science into concepts the teens can understand. What’s more, teens really want to explore the topic through conversation and hands-on activities. Thus, the Building with Biology kit is ideal for teen science café programs.

Dozens of teen science café programs have received the kits and are using them with teen science café programs in museums, science centers, 4-H clubs, aquaria, zoos, libraries, Upward Bound programs, and more venues.

Members of the Teen Science Café Network are implementing teen science cafés in 63 communities and 25 states ( Once a month teens meet with a scientist to explore a hot topic in science and technology through a presentation, great conversations and hands-on activities. 

For more information about the Teen Science Café Network, contact Michelle Hall, President of Science Education Solutions, at