Stanford professors promote bio-literacy through digital education
“Bioengineering for all! Bionauts assemble!”
That was Drew Endy’s and Jenn Brophy’s rallying cry for the Stanford course, Introduction to Bioengineering, that they offered to low-income high school students for the first time last spring. At the start of the course, Endy, associate professor of bioengineering at Stanford, and his colleague, Brophy, assistant professor of bioengineering, told the teenagers that they were “bionauts” exploring the frontiers of a new field, much like astronauts exploring space.
Both Endy and Brophy have taught earlier iterations of the course to Stanford undergraduates since 2013. This time around was different, though, because it involved a team of teachers, distributed around the country, some based in high school classrooms, others available over Zoom.
Offered through the nonprofit National Education Equity Lab, with support from Stanford Digital Education, the course was offered in 10 Title I high schools in California, Colorado, Florida, New York, and South Carolina, enrolling more than 100 students; Title I is a designation for schools where 40 percent of students are approved to receive free or reduced-price school meals. More than 90 percent of students surveyed said they were likely to recommend the course to other students, with 82 percent reporting that the course helped them feel more prepared for college.
Students took the course during the school day, going to a classroom in their school with a teacher from the high school. In addition to the classroom teachers, there also were 10 Stanford undergraduates and graduate students who served as teaching fellows, one for each classroom, leading a weekly discussion session via Zoom and holding online office hours. Endy, who is also Martin Family University Fellow in Undergraduate Education, and Brophy recorded lectures and guided the entire operation, with Erik Brown, Stanford Digital Education associate creative director, providing operational leadership and support.
Jonathan Rabinovitz, Stanford Digital Education communications director, recently asked Endy five questions about teaching the course and about what’s next.
1. Why work with Stanford Digital Education and National Education Equity Lab to reach students at Title I high schools?
Drew Endy: Most high school students have ZERO idea what bioengineering is. Especially from underresourced environments. Here’s a representative quote Professor Brophy and I received as feedback from one of our students in New York City:
“I just recently finished your Introduction to Bioengineering course via Ed Equity and had a fantastic time. I'd like to express my gratitude to both of you for taking part in letting kids experience advanced courses such as this one. Before this course, I'd never heard of bioengineers but now it's one of my top contenders for future career plans. Thank you so much for your time.”
Professor Brophy and I could not be more thrilled to partner with Stanford Digital Education and Ed Equity Lab to learn how to bring Stanford’s Introduction to Bioengineering to high school students everywhere. It is a tremendous responsibility but one full of opportunity and possibility. By partnering with our colleagues in Title I high schools to enable students everywhere to learn about bioengineering, we ourselves are discovering what bioengineering can and will be. We ourselves are benefiting from a tremendous community of educators who are working with us to strengthen and improve our on-campus curriculum.
2. Do you have to add scaffolding and put in extra time to make it work for high school students?
D.E.: Yes, it is more work. A tremendous amount. But work that is not wasted and that is resulting in what we expect will become the foundation of a world-readable curriculum that unlocks bioengineering for all. Prof. Brophy and I could not be more grateful for the opportunity. And we are excited by what we and the entire team achieved this first time around: the Ed Equity Lab reported an 81 percent course completion rate, and 87 percent of those students earned a passing grade along with Stanford credit.
As a next step as we iterate and improve, we will offer the course in spring 2024 to only two high schools so we can focus on implementing upgrades and strengthening the course scaffolding so that it can scale more readily thereafter. We expect one school will be in the San Francisco Unified School District, which will be the first time an Ed Equity Lab course is taught in the Bay Area.
3. Any innovations for the future you want to share?
D.E.: We have put the course on a website that is open access. It features an AI chatbot that we’re training. It’s still in its infancy, but we envision that the AI can serve as a sort of “digital TA” for students as they go through the course. When we offered the course last spring, we discovered that students weren’t familiar with a lot of the jargon. They often had to Google terms to find their meaning or consult a teacher or teaching fellow. We want students to be able to go to the chatbot to get the right answer. By training a chatbot on the course materials directly, and collecting feedback on chatbot responses, we think we can offer something that is less “hallucinations” and more “right answers.” We are eager for people to try it out.
We’re also looking into the use of virtual reality. We mailed materials to the school for a lab this last time around, but we may be able to do more ambitious lab experiments by using virtual reality. Also, we showed the students a Stanford lab over Zoom, and that experience could be much more powerful if it was in three dimensions. We’re working on that. We’d like to show them a teaching lab and a research lab so they will see what they get to work with as undergrads and then see what they could work with later on. Also, along these lines one Stanford undergrad made a video game that is set in a bioengineering laboratory. It’s pretty amazing. Check it out on the course website.
4. How does this course compare with what you offer Stanford students?
D.E.: The course that we offered to high school students in spring 2023 was the same as the on-campus version, BIOE 80, we had given the previous year (spring 2022). It had the same curriculum and assignments as the course that Stanford undergraduates had taken. But BIOE 80 is always evolving with the field, and so the on-campus spring 2023 offering, which started eight weeks later in March 2023, was slightly different, with new content for about 10 percent of the modules. We are not teaching this course from an established textbook. We are teaching this course from the frontiers of bioengineering, which are always moving.
5. Why teach bioengineering beyond the Stanford campus?
D.E.: The 21st century is being referred to as a century of biology. Not only science but engineering. You can see that the so-called “bioeconomy” is booming. But are we engineering futures in which people will be citizens of our bioeconomy — or merely consumers, subjects, or objects?
Many are coming to recognize biology as a “general purpose technology,” akin to how computing emerged in the mid-to-late 20th century. To me it feels like literacy (i.e., reading and writing) is as important in biology as in computers and human languages. How many should have the option of learning to read and write? To read and write computer code? To read and write DNA? This line of thinking leads us to the idea of bioengineering for all. Everyone should have the option of learning to read and write DNA.
Jonathan Rabinovitz is director of communications for Stanford Digital Education.
Introduction to Bioengineering is one of several courses that Stanford Digital Education offers to high schools nationwide in collaboration with the National Education Equity Lab. See Stanford courses for Title I high school students for more information.
This is the fifth installment in Stanford Digital Education’s “Changing Course” feature, which spotlights innovative ways in which members of the Stanford community are leveraging digital education techniques to better meet their learning goals and enrich students' experiences. If you would like to be showcased, please reach out to Jonathan Rabinovitz, email@example.com.
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