Biota Beats and the Street Bio Youth Science Initiative
As a part of bringing Biota Beats to our community, we chose to engage with local middle school-aged
youth through a pioneering community youth science initiative. As integrated STEAM (science,
technology, engineering, art, and math) curriculums gain traction and prosper in today’s schools,
Biota Beats provided Street Bio with a unique opportunity for community youth engagement. At the
crossroads of music and science, Biota Beats gives young aspiring scientists the chance to blend
together scientific curiosity, biotechnology and musical creativity. In order to bring Biota Beats
to local youth, we pioneered the EMW Bookstore Street Bio Youth Science Initiative with the goal of
immersing local, underrepresented youth at the forefront of science.
Street Bio’s Youth Science Initiative making their own microbiome records for Biota Beats
Street Bio in the Community
Of all the world’s cities, Cambridge undoubtedly stands out as a bright hub of science, education,
and creativity. Local biotechnology startups, interdisciplinary research centers, and world-renowned
universities contribute to a lively neighborhood that prides itself on innovation and curiosity.
Often times, however, as a community member the opportunity to engage with such exciting activity
can feel limited to those who possess university affiliations and professional credentials. In turn,
the institutions that aim to contribute to the advancement of science for society can seem exclusive
- sequestered to the “ivory tower.” In an effort to counter this institutional exclusivity EMW
Bookstore created the community program, Street Bio. Street Bio’s mission is to explore the
interface of engineered biology and “the street” - the people, culture, and products that will shape
how biology leaves the lab and enters our everyday lives. Believing that biology is humanity’s next
technological revolution, we ask, who will be empowered to participate? By bringing Biota Beats to
our community, and in particular the youth in our community, we hope to empower young aspiring
scientists by fostering their creativity and scientific curiosity ultimately encouraging them to let
their imaginations run wild - a known prerequisite for groundbreaking science.
Among Street Bio’s many projects, which include building out an in-house community laboratory and
managing the international course “How to Grow (Almost) Anything,” we first engaged with youth
through a collaboration with the Cambridge Science Festival (the first-of-its-kind celebration
highlighting fun and leading edge STEAM projects in our region). Importantly, as educational
curriculums move from STEM to STEAM, educators and students alike are realizing the false dichotomy
between science and art and how the two disciplines synergize immensely well in many respects. In
April 2016, EMW collaborated with Amino Labs on a 2-day workshop for
youth as a part of the
Cambridge Science Festival. Over the course of a weekend, more than 20 youth, from late elementary
school to middle school, participated in a hands-on workshop where they learned about synthetic
biology and applied their knowledge to culture bacteria in the Amino One, a table-top bacterial
culture system. The students cultured E. coli and transformed bacteria with recombinant DNA.
Group photo of our youth at EMW’s Cambridge Science Festival event with Amino Labs!
Pioneering the Youth Science Initiative
Following our successful collaboration with the Cambridge Science Festival, Street Bio aspired to
make a commitment to local youth engagement through STEAM in an effort to foster a fun learning
environment conducive to boundless scientific curiosity and unlimited imaginative exploration. As
luck would have it, Crystal Johnson, a parent of one of the participants at our Street Bio/Cambridge
Science Festival program connected with Street Bio founder, David Kong. Johnson, founder of
Integrative Sustainability and Environmental Solutions and accomplished energy strategist, shared
our excitement regarding continued youth engagement in the sciences. After several teleconferences,
we planned a recurring weekend youth program focused on engaging local youth at the forefront of
science, and thus, EMW Bookstore’s Street Bio Youth Science Initiative (YSI) was born.
In an effort to advance Street Bio’s mission, the YSI has been geared towards engaging
underrepresented and disadvantaged local youth in science - girls, youth of color, low socioeconomic
status. Upon forming partnerships with local biotechnology startup Ginkgo Bioworks, research groups
at MIT Media Lab, and an astronaut at NASA, we ultimately developed a theme centered on
sustainability and a timeline for recurring weekend workshops where each YSI session would take
place at a different laboratory and we would spend the day learning, asking questions, building,
experimenting, and bonding over our shared love for science.
Biota Beats at Ginkgo Bioworks
After several weeks of publicizing the YSI, the first session took place on October 15th, 2016. That
morning, our pioneering cohort of youth participants arrived at Ginkgo Bioworks - a bioengineering
startup nestled on the drydock in Boston’s Seaport District. After a brief introduction to YSI and
its core organizers, the majority of the day centered on the idea of “Making Molecules.” Initial
interactive lessons described several microorganisms in nature, how some make their own molecules
and for what purposes. Presenters drew on examples such as haloarchaea and yeast.
Kit McDonnell of Ginkgo Bioworks presents to youth on microbes in nature.
Didactic lectures were kept to the bare minimum while activities, videos, pair sharing, and
demonstrations were the main educational tools used. YSI participants were always encouraged to
participate and ask questions.
Ranjith Anand of Ginkgo Bioworks and YSI participant Aspen Johnson talk about the relationship between yeast, fruit, and smells.
A design activity, where participants were given the opportunity to design their own microbes,
yielded incredibly innovative ideas ranging from microbial pollution eliminators, water purity
indicators, mini-machine repairers, and even microbes that would enable ovenless baking!
YSI participant brainstorms on what her microbe of the future might do.
Following a pizza lunch, the cohort was given a personalized tour of the Ginkgo Bioworks foundry.
There, the youth were given an overview of how the lab uses robots and tools like bioreactors,
fermentation hoods, and mass spectrometers to build microbes that make molecules.
EMW Street Bio’s first-ever Youth Science Initiative cohort. At Ginkgo Bioworks, local youth were introduced to topics in microbiology, synthetic biology, and Biota Beats.
Street Bio founder David Kong providing a brief overview of microbiology and engineering to YSI youth.
Eventually, following the foundry tour the cohort had a second set of interactive lessons on the
human microbiome and the intersections between the microbiology and engineering. Through a guided
question-and-answer lesson, the YSI participants demonstrated a strong understanding of microbiota.
We then transitioned over from our science studies to music. We brought in and set up a classic
vinyl record player and while playing a Stevie Wonder record, we explained how we might be able to
create records out of our own microbiota.
We used a classic record player in parallel with our hacked Biota Beats microbiome record player to show how we would play our own microbiome records.
The youth were shown how microbiomes cultured on an agar plate resembled classic vinyl records and
were given a demonstration as to how a new type of record player could play music from our cultured
microbiota. Soon after the demonstration, we instructed each participant to swab different parts of
their body and inoculate their personal agar plate-records with their microbiota. They quickly and
excitedly began swabbing, inoculating, and essentially composing their own microbiome records.
David Kong explains how Biota Beats works to YSI cohort
YSI participant inoculates her microbiome record.
Upon completely inoculating their personalized microbiome records, the YSI participants were asked to
take their records home. They were given specific instructions to take pictures of their records as
the microbiota grew each day. As they continue to share their images with our Street Bio team, we
are sonifying their records, giving our youth participants the opportunity to produce their own
electronic music using their individual microbiome records.
By bringing Biota Beats to our community through the Youth Science Initiative, we are providing local
youth with the unique opportunity to participate in a novel STEAM education program. Our initial YSI
cohort demonstrated strong enthusiasm in Biota Beats because of how the project brought together
music, microbiology, and biotechnology. The youth were able to be creative and innovate while
excitedly engaging with their passions for science. As Street Bio continues to make a strong
commitment to community youth engagement we hope to use continue using Biota Beats as an exemplary
model for STEAM education.
EMW Street Bio’s Youth Science Initiative poster designed by Jeffrey Cott.