From Tufts to STEM Advocate

Tufts PhD candidate Amanda Strawhacker is helping to develop a tool to foster a love for science, technology, engineering and math in young children
Amanda Strawhacker works with local children on a research study at the Boston Museum of Science

By Dan O'Sullivan

Can a four-year-old actually learn core concepts of bioengineering? The answer is a resounding "yes," according to Amanda Strawhacker, a "Double Jumbo" now working toward her PhD at Tufts' Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Strawhacker is a doctoral research assistant in the Developmental Technologies (DevTech) Research Group, part of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development. She is leading DevTech's collaboration with the Human Computer Interaction Lab at Wellesley College on CRISPEE, a developmentally appropriate tool to teach K–2 students about genetics and biodesign.

Educating children on these topics at such a young age is critical, Strawhacker contended. "We know kids develop deep-seated stereotypes about who's able to participate in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) professions very early on," she said. "Other PhD students at Tufts have done pivotal work demonstrating that girls and minorities don't engage in STEM starting at age nine. They're driven away from it."

With CRISPEE, Strawhacker hopes to chip away at harmful stereotypes and show children that people of all genders and backgrounds can excel in bioengineering and other STEM fields. The tool is currently being piloted at Tufts, Wellesley College and Boston Children's Museum.

Overcoming Negative Preconceptions

Strawhacker, a Delaware native, has personal experience dealing with gender-based stereotypes. In fourth grade, a teacher told her it was fine if she wasn't strong in math because "most girls aren't."

"It's a systemic issue," she said. "As a society, we have a lot of preconceived notions about what boys and girls are good at."

While researching colleges years later, Strawhacker became interested in Tufts because of its strong international identity and diverse student body. She applied early decision to the undergraduate program and was accepted for the 2007-2008 school year.

After taking a course on biological anthropology her first year, Strawhacker decided to major in anthropology. She wrote a paper during her final semester on how children experience emerging tools and technologies. In doing the research, she came across the Eliot-Pearson Department for the first time. Pleasantly surprised to find a department on campus that was doing work so closely related to her paper topic, she subsequently applied and was accepted to its Child Study and Human Development master's program.

Sticking at Tufts

Strawhacker graduated with a Master of Arts in Child Study and Human Development in 2013 and then spent two years at DevTech working on ScratchJr, a research project to develop a tablet-based programming environment for young children. She chose to pursue her doctoral studies at Tufts based on her fondness for DevTech and her close relationship with her advisor for her master's program, Marina Umaschi Bers, professor and chair, Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development. ("No matter how busy she is or how crazy her workload," Strawhacker said, "she still takes the time to ask how my family's doing or about my program. I owe her so much.")

In 2017, Strawhacker began working as the lead student researcher on a collaborative project between Tufts and Wellesley College. The goal is to design a suite of tools to introduce bioengineering to a range of ages, starting in kindergarten to second grade.

CRISPEE is a tangible tool designed for this early age range. It's modeled on the CRISPR/Cas9 platform, which "edits genes by precisely cutting DNA and then letting natural DNA repair processes to take over," according to the CRISPR Therapeutics website. CRISPR enables gene scientists to cut and paste sections of genes as easily as we change typos in an email or a piece of code in a program.

For CRISPEE, Strawhacker said, the research team borrowed the notion of DNA as a coding language to illustrate how bioluminescence works. Using the tool, which looks a bit like a cash register, students first build a program that consists of genes that code for colors — red, green and blue — and can be mixed to create a unique color. (Bioluminescent animals, such as fireflies and jellyfish, have some of these genes in different combinations, resulting in different colors for their naturally glowing parts.)

Students build their colorful programs on the CRISPEE tool and physically mix their edited gene programs into an animal's genome — a process that simulates CRISPR's centrifuge process. Finally, by pressing a button, they express their gene code as a new-colored light on their choice of bioluminescent animal, allowing the animal to glow in their selected color.

In addition, students can work with genes that trigger animal senses. For example, a child can make a firefly that glows green until it smells toxic air pollution, at which point it glows red as a kind of natural alarm system. All of these ideas are based on real-world projects that professional bioengineers are currently experimenting with.

A Most Timely Topic

CRISPEE incorporates elements of physics, chemistry and natural science, but the main focus is introducing children to the world of bioengineering. The topic, Strawhacker said, couldn't be timelier.

"Bioengineering already impacts our lives in really subtle and nuanced ways," she explained. "You probably ate genetically modified food today. You almost certainly have had medicines that were genetically engineered. There's also a huge debate about things like 'designer babies'.

"This kind of innovation is happening at a pace that's beyond the scope of what we can even understand. I don't think in human history we've had this same level of a technology that is at once so powerful and so destructive since the atom bomb. There's nothing that compares with it. We can now change human evolution — period."

For this reason, the CRISPEE project has a strong ethical component.

"We bake in every step of the way that when we do bioengineering, we need to think about why we're doing it, who it's benefitting and whom it could be harming," Strawhacker said. "What are the consequences? We're changing an animal's DNA. Is that okay, or not okay?"

Ultimately, Strawhacker isn't looking to cultivate the next generation of bioengineers. Rather, she's aiming to instill in young children a more nuanced understanding of life — and how the meaning thereof has changed with the advent of technologies like CRISPR.

"'Nature versus nurture' — that's totally out the window now, but we still have to think about the difference between a technology and a creature," she noted. "I want to give kids a tool to think about that because they're born into a world where biology and technology are already fusing. And if you don't have a framework to understand the differences, it will be really difficult to understand who you are."