Biology by Design

Teacher Considerations


View Activity

Using the bacterial photography system as inspiration, this assignment asks the students (individually or in groups) to use their imagination as they propose a design for a genetic system. The emphasis is on the decisions made by engineers during the planning of the design process and not on the genetics. The students are asked to consider existing technologies, risk, reward, and testing. Of course, they are expected to imagine a genetic system that will make a significant contribution to life on earth. You can worry about its feasibility later.

You may also find this design assignment useful for an iGEM team as it develops an idea for a project. Although the assignment itself is written for an individual student, it can be adapted for a group. The brainstorming exercises below lend themselves quite well to a group process, such as is needed within an iGEM team.

Some good resources for teaching this activity are listed at the bottom of the student's page. You may wish to assign these readings or videos before trying the assignment as a class.

Why teach this?

Here are some reasons from our BioBuilder teachers:
  • Practical application of synthetic biology
  • Introduction to basic engineering principles
  • Emphasis on engineering "design/build/test" paradigms
  • Collecting and analyzing qualitative and quantitative data
  • Determining the need for various types of data
  • Emphasizing team work and collaboration
  • Learning and implementing basic lab skills
  • Learning current and relevant science
  • High interest
  • Non-predictable outcomes
  • Emphasizes creative portion of science
  • Meets NGSS and Common Core
  • Adaptable on the inquiry spectrum
  • Live examples of operons and gene expression
  • Exposure to population growth curves

Where does this activity fit in?

  • The BioBuilder curriculum is intentionally flexible and the activities may be used when and where appropriate based upon student content and skill readiness.
  • The curriculum is also intentionally modular. You can teach one or more BioBuilder activities, and they do not have to be completed in order.
  • The BioBuilder curriculum is not intended to stuff "more" content into some already overstuffed classes. It can be used to teach ideas and content that are traditionally taught, applying an engineering framework to teach them with investigative, design questions.
  • Finally the curriculum is not exclusively intended for one specific life science course. BioBuilder has been used in General or Honors Biology (with high school freshman), in AP Biology and in Biotechnology classes (with high school juniors and seniors), and in college engineering or microbiology lab classes. Middle school students also have had wonderful success with the BioBuilder Jr labs.
Some background content and skills are helpful prior to conducting labs.


  • DNA Basics: what it is and how it works
  • RNA Basics: what it is and how it works
  • Gene Expression: Transcription, Translation, Operons
  • Recombinant DNA: Restriction enzymes, cloning, selection with antibiotic resistance


  • Pipetting
  • Measuring cell density with a spectrophotometer
  • Basic microbiology skills: Culturing bacteria, Aseptic technique, Antibiotic resistance, Population dynamics

Alignment to Standards

Downloads that show how BioBuilder content can be used to meet the following teaching standards:

BioBuilder Classroom


Slides from the Intro To SynBio video lesson

Slides from the Abstraction video lesson #1

Slides from the Abstraction video lesson #2


Intro to SynBio

Abstraction_lesson 1

Abstraction_lesson 2

Design Framework_lesson 2


Biology By Design comic strip

Focus Areas for Design Brainstorming

Pre-Lab Assessment

Please send this assessment link to your students to help us gauge the understanding and interest that they have in the engineering of biology. Student responses will only be reported in aggregate and analyzed for statistically significant trends. Administer this pre- assessment only once, even if you carry out more than one BioBuilder activity.

Analysis and Feedback

Submit your Data


When the students have finished their design work, ask them to upload their ideas to the BioBuilder site to see how their thinking compares to other BioBuilders. Email BioBuilder for the passcode to enter the data sharing portal.

Assessment Rubrics

Post-Lab Assessment

Help us gauge the understanding and interest that your students have after their BioBuilder activities by participating in a 20 question survey. Student responses will only be reported in aggregate and analyzed for statistically significant trends. We'd be grateful if you could administer this post-assessment only once, after you've carried out all the BioBuilder activities you'll run with your class. THANK YOU!