Sublime Slime: Where Biology and Engineering Meet, High School Students Benefit

To prepare children for the future, today’s science classes must go way beyond textbooks and simple frog dissections. At one high school in Virginia, a student-teacher from the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education has created an innovative project that has students learning both cell biology concepts and engineering design skills at the same time.

A deadly, contagious disease has infected the population – and it’s spreading. Fast. How would you design a quarantine facility to keep it contained?

That’s the challenge that biology students at Western Albemarle High School faced this year, with a few important distinctions: in this case, the “deadly disease” was a live (but perfectly safe) organism called slime mold, the “healthy population” was a few dry oats, and the quarantine had to fit in a petri dish.

Slime mold is a unique single-celled organism that has the ability to communicate and behave like a colony when food, like oats, is in short supply. Often resembling a fungus, slime mold can form efficient, highway-like networks – even solve mazes.

Biology students at Western Albemarle, located in Albemarle County, have studied slime mold for years, but this year’s project was different. Each student was charged with sketching a quarantine design that would keep the “virus” contained. Then, in small teams, they brainstormed possible solutions, considered the constraints of their materials and budget, and created prototypes using materials like Legos, aluminum foil, pipe cleaners and straws. They tested their designs, re-designed and re-tested in search of the most effective quarantine facility.

Throughout the process, the students learned core biology concepts like cell anatomy – but that’s not what made the project successful. Taylor Avery, the student-teacher, was inspired to create the project after learning about an instructional method called engineering design-integrated science in her Curry School classes.

By designing their own quarantines, Avery’s students weren’t just learning biology. They were also practicing engineering design: the hands-on method that engineers use to design solutions to real problems.

What is Engineering Design, and Why Does It Matter?

Avery first learned about engineering design from her Curry School professor Frackson Mumba. “Engineering is solving problems to improve human life,” Mumba explained. “Engineering has a process that engineers use to find solutions to those…

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