On April 9, the Bioengineering Honor Society hosted 22 high school teams, made up of four to five students, for an annual competition designed to make engineering and STEM more accessible.
“A lot of high school students are interested in biotech or engineering, but the current curriculum can be frustrating,” says Rohan Thakur, chairman of the Bioengineering High School Competition. “Some of the teams come from schools that don’t even have biology programs.”
The competition is in its third year, and the teams are from the Bay Area. Although, Thakur says, this year they received applications from schools in other parts of the country, and even one from an ambitious South Korean student. But so far, because of travel budget constraints, only local schools attend the event.
Program participants are paired with Berkeley undergraduate mentors (most of the Berkeley students are engineering majors), and, over the course of six weeks, develop a theoretical medical device or synthetic biology experiment. All of the teams competing have to create a comprehensive literature review about their topic.
“The result is comparable to an undergraduate bioengineering class final project,” Thakur says. “They outline a problem and then go into the logistics of the design and how they would carry out an experiment.” The judging panel for the final projects is a blend of bioengineering faculty members and industry professionals.
The winning biomedical device team this year was from San Jose’s Lynbrook High School, who developed an idea to use nanoparticles to treat antihistamine overdoses. Two teams from San Francisco’s Lowell High School won the other categories. Lowell’s synthetic biology team conceived of using CRISPR-Cas9, the gene editing technology, to make Brussels sprouts more palatable, while their literature review team produced a video about using CRISPR-Cas9 to induce Zika virus immunity in mosquitos.
“When I was in high school, I did a lot of mechanical engineering research in my garage,” Thakur says, “but my real interest was in biomedical engineering. I tried applying to labs, but that meant a lot of washing test tubes. I had to wait to get to college to do any real bioengineering research.”
In addition to getting a glimpse of college, winning schools also get to bring home research gear donated by industry sponsors. This year the prizes included the Amino One, a desktop bioreactor, the miniPCR, a portable PCR machine used to amplify DNA, and the BITalino, an electronics platform designed to interface with biological signals.
The Bioengineering Honor Society has launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds to expand next year’s competition. “We want to make sure that anyone interested in bioengineering can participate, especially groups that are underrepresented in STEM,” Thakur says.