This Exhibit Helps 8-Year-Olds (And Anyone) Learn The Basics Of Synthetic Biology

The San Jose Tech Museum is getting the kiddos comfortable with humankind’s new mastery over the genetic universe.

At the creature creation station at the new BioDesign Studio, visitors act like bioengineers. By sticking together a kit of computerized blocks that represent genes for various traits, they can create an imaginary creature, then release it into a massive virtual aquarium–and see how it interacts with other creatures there.


It’s one piece of a new interactive exhibit at San Jose’s Tech Museum that’s designed to teach anyone, including elementary school students, the fundamentals of synthetic biology. The exhibit, the first of its kind anywhere, took two years and $5 million to build.

“Biology’s at this really interesting turning point where our ability to engineer and interact with it and understand it is growing so rapidly that new technologies and possibilities arise every day,” says Anja Scholze, biotech experience designer at the museum. “But biology is still taught in a fairly standard way in classrooms–people learn a set of processes, and they are given knowledge to memorize. We really think that biology’s entering a space that people can begin to explore and innovate and create with it.”

Instead of leading visitors through lessons, the space is a place for people to play with biology and get a tangible understanding of some basic principles. “It was important for us to make sure that the fundamentals of some of the biological components are kind of intuitively understood,” says Keeli Shaw, interactive project director for Local Projects, a design studio that worked on the digital parts of the exhibit.

In one display, visitors can change virtual fur cells in bear-like creatures projected on the wall, and watch as colors and patterns morph. “All these complex patterns have been reduced to the level of different hand controls and physical knobs and dials,” says Shaw. “You can see, oh, that kind of looks like a giraffe, or a tiger, or a puffer fish.”

In the “living colors lab” it’s possible to engineer bacteria to glow different colors; in the “biotinkering lab” it’s possible to build bricks with wood waste and mushrooms, and learn about how mycelium is being used in sustainable building materials.

The exhibit will stay up for 10 years, and while some of the fundamental lessons stay the same, details will evolve as the science does.


It’s designed to give enough of an understanding of how synthetic biology works that someone can follow debates about the field. “We think of it as a starting point for having an informed public that can actually engage in a conversation about the risk and rewards,” says Scholze.

It’s also meant to spur the interest of future biologists. “I’m really excited to see how it inspires the innovators of the future to sort of use this space to solve some of the problems that we potentially are facing in the next 10, 20, 30 years,” she says.

All Photos: Na’im Beyah


About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.