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Science fund lets kids learn 3D printing, gene modification

The National Science Foundation goes way beyond Mindstorms.

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President Obama declared June 17 to the 23rd to be the National Week of Making, and what better way to celebrate than funding research for kids? The National Science Foundation (NSF) created a $1.5 million "early-concept grant" for five youth-oriented projects. They include 3D printing for inner-city kids and a DNA project that teaches high schoolers to build their own organisms (yep). "A core tenet of the maker movement is that experiences involving active exploration of ideas ... elicit enjoyment and foster lasting learning," says Rutgers' Elizabeth Bonawitz.

Each of the ambitious project gets $300,000 over two years, and they're certainly diverse and ambitious. One aims "to measure psychophysiological indications of heightened engagement" of young makers using wearables and cameras. Researchers in another project will attempt to design maker spaces that "welcome [ethnic] groups traditionally underrepresented in STEM."

More practical is a 3D printing "living laboratory" in Baltimore. Researchers will "study the impact of maker employment on inner city youth," and see if it helps them improve in STEM subjects. Along the same lines, another team wants to develop a "Mobile Maker Center" that kids can use in science museums, libraries or play centers. "An idea at the heart of cognitive development is that children 'construct' knowledge by active exploration," says Bonawitz.

The most ambitious project is perhaps the synethetic biology bioMAKERlab. It aims to help high school "learn and discuss not only critical ideas about synthetic biology but also test what it means to design and build your own organisms using DNA" says Orkan Tehan from the University of Pennsylvania. According to the description, the wetlab starter kit will let students "build genetic circuits that enable microorganisms to develop change color, smell and shape." After all, why dissect frogs when you can build a new one?

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