Inspiring High School Students' Creativity and Design Thinking with Agar Art

Aug. 28, 2019

ASM's 5th Agar Art Contest opens for submissions on September 10, 2019!
“It’s an opportunity to show a different side of biology,” says teacher Michaela Danek about incorporating agar art into 10th grade biology  “It draws in different students.”

Danek is a science teacher at The Nueva School, a non-profit, independent school serving gifted students in San Mateo, CA. She and her colleague Trip Sweeney revamped the school’s required 10th grade biology course for the 2018-2019 school year. The new microbiology unit develops students’ lab skills and background knowledge before culminating in a creative and unusual final project - students have to design a living piece of “agar art” showcasing what they’ve learned. The idea came from Sweeney, who taught a semester-long agar art elective the year before inspired by his experience as a pathology resident and his exposure to ASM’s contest and Alexander Flemming’s body of work. Says Sweeney “I walked into the Dean's office and asked if I could teach an ‘Agar Art’ elective and she welcomed the proposal.” 

Before students get to the much-anticipated final project, Danek and Sweeney emphasize the basics. Students begin the unit learning how to culture many different species of bacteria, from Escherichia coli to Micrococcus luteus to Pseudomonas fluorescens. Students experiment with different media and culture conditions, such as temperature and the presence of antibiotics. Observing growth patterns for each species over many different conditions reveals the metabolic diversity of the bacterial world. Since none of the bacteria students work with are human pathogens, they also learn that bacteria do many things in our world aside from making people sick.

Midway through the unit, Danek runs a classic bacterial unknown activity, handing students cultures that they must identify by designing and carrying out a series of growth experiments based on what they’ve learned so far. The activity uses design thinking and allows students to experience trial and error and the importance of iteration, things Danek and Sweeney purposefully wove throughout their redesigned curriculum. And, since a state-of-the-art biology class wouldn’t be complete without genomics, students also sequence their cultures’ 16S rRNA genes to confirm their agar-based identification. 

In the second half of the unit, students go from investigating the natural diversity of bacteria to manipulating microbes for specific purposes. Genetic experiments, like transforming plasmids that encode colorful proteins into E. coli, help students learn about the natural exchange of genetic material between bacteria, as well as how this process has been exploited in biotechnology. They probe the regulation of gene expression with inducible promoters and again examine how a natural phenomenon has been co-opted for human purposes. 

Finally, students create a piece of agar art using any combination of techniques and organisms from the unit. Even the final project is iterative, as students often don’t get the effect they intended on their first try. “With added time, the process also allows for many interesting, unintentional ‘compositions,’ to grow themselves,” says Sweeney. Danek notes that students like the opportunity to be creative while showing off their new knowledge and skills. Some students even go on to focus on observations made during the creation of their agar art for their independent project in the second semester of the class. 
"Plasmid Water Lillies," Maya Chawla, Paige Mountanos, and Tara Saxena. 2018. For this agar art piece, the focus was on the transformation and interactions of plasmids. To create the piece, 2μL of chloramphenicol was combined with 20mL of LB agar with 2μL of blue dye (for color). From there, yellow plasmid was painted on and, following that, the magenta plasmid. Both plasmids contained chloramphenicol resistance, and both were resuspended for a brightened color. Clay modeled in the shape of a bridge was then filled with LB agar and left to set. The LB agar was then removed from the mold and placed on top of this plasmid piece. The agar plate was left to grow for one day in an incubator at 37 degrees Celsius.

Danek is excited to teach the second full iteration of the course this coming school year to a class of about 115 sophomores. Over the summer, she ran a 3-week long mini version of the agar art unit as part of the Stanford Pre-Collegiate Summer Institutes program for rising high school freshmen and sophomores. As a former public school teacher, Danek acknowledges that what she’s been able to do at The Nueva School is hard to replicate elsewhere. Like her students, she hopes to apply design thinking and iteration to reduce costs and prep time for the unit to adapt it to other schools.  

Inspired by Danek's students? Start working on your microbial masterpiece today. Submissions for ASM Agar Art 2019 open September 10, 2019 and close October 22, 2019.

Author: Katherine Lontok

Katherine Lontok
Dr. Katherine Lontok joined the American Society for Microbiology as the Public Outreach Manager in January 2016. At ASM, she works to bring the microbial sciences to adult and youth audiences, as well as enable ASM members to effectively engage in their own public outreach.