How to Grow (Almost) Anything: a Hybrid Distance Learning Model for Global Laboratory-Based Synthetic Biology Education

Pat Pataranutaporn,  Laura Maria Gonzalez, Sara Nejad

Perry, Eyal, et al. "How to grow (almost) anything: a hybrid distance learning model for global laboratory-based synthetic biology education." Nature Biotechnology (2022): 1-6.


The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted education across the globe, leading to urgent efforts to improve distance-based learning. Educators worldwide have scrambled to create meaningful, effective content for their students as campuses closed and teaching moved online, with some of the largest impacts on laboratory-based courses. Synthetic Biology (SynBio) is a young, interdisciplinary field of research that incorporates a wide range of scientific and design disciplines that require rigorous lab work to master. SynBio tools hold the promise to solve global challenges such as sustainability, climate change, and infectious diseases, yet SynBio education is largely still confined to students pursuing advanced STEM degrees in highly resourced institutions. Attempts to democratize SynBio education such as MIT’s “How to Grow Almost Anything” (HTGAA) course have been successful at extending SynBio education to non-STEM students. However, previous efforts have been hampered by global biotechnology supply chain limitations and limited access to advanced scientific equipment and certified Biological Safety Level laboratories across much of the world. Since hands-on experimentation is a key component of effective SynBio education, the COVID-19 laboratory closures led HTGAA instructors to develop new modalities of remote learning. Our approach utilizes a hybrid distance learning method, consisting of deep-dive lectures taught by world experts and a combination of student-run home laboratory experiments, student-executed cloud simulations, student-programmed robot-assisted experiments, and student-designed TA-assisted laboratory work. The course culminated in final student projects where each student had complete creative agency to apply the knowledge gained through the semester to a topic and a project of their choosing. Importantly, a cohort of global learners from outside MIT also participated alongside the enrolled MIT students, expanding the reach of the course. From our experiences with this pilot program, which directly resulted from the COVID-19 restrictions, we lay out a vision for the democratization of SynBio education via a scalable distributed network model of distance-based laboratory learning that will be accessible globally and across disciplines and backgrounds. 

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