Educating Students to Build with Biology

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Building with Biology

For generations, the “makers” of the world have been building increasingly complex machines and systems with traditional materials such as woods, metals, ceramics, and plastics. These materials have many advantageous properties, but they all have one disadvantage: they do not dynamically sense and adaptively respond to their environments in real-time. However, we are surrounded by materials that do this regularly – biological materials! Harnessing the power of biology to build living tissue and organs for applications in regenerative medicine has been a topic of much interest in recent years. Enabling technologies such as 3D printing have spurred this growth further by providing a customizable tool for “building with biology”.

3D Printing Biological Robots (Bio-Bots)


Figure 1 : 3D Printing Biological Machines. A) Schematic of 3D printing apparatus used to fabricate bio-bot skeletons using a biocompatible polymer. B) Image of 3D printed bio-bot coupled to tissue engineered skeletal muscle. C) Electrical and optical signals are used to drive contraction of the tissue engineered muscle, with each contraction corresponding to a “step” forward. External signals can thus be used to control bio-bots to walk on 2D substrates. The direction of walking can be dictated by either the geometry of the skeleton or the region of muscle stimulated. D) Future work on bio-bots could involve incorporating multiple tissue types (such as muscle, vasculature, neurons) to create robots that can sense, process, and respond to dynamic environmental signals in real-time. Shown in this schematic is a bio-bot that senses a harmful chemical gradient, walks toward it, and secretes biological factors to neutralize the toxin. This is just one of many potential applications for bio-bots in the future.

Researchers in the National Science Foundation’s EBICS (Emergent Behavior of Integrated Cellular Systems) Science and Technology Center have been taking the idea of building with biology one step further. Instead of reverse engineering existing biological systems, like tissue engineered replacements for medical applications, they have been trying to forward engineer bio-hybrid robots (bio-bots). Like traditional robots, bio-bots are designed to sense, process, and respond to external signals and can be targeted at a variety of applications. Unlike traditional robots, bio-bots use biological materials to accomplish these functional behaviors. As a result, they can be designed to exploit the dynamic adaptive capabilities of biological materials, such as self-healing and self-assembly.

Educating Students to Build with Biology


Figure 2: Ritu Raman observing a student performing an experimental procedure in BIOE 306: Biofabrication Course. Students learned principles of 3D biology and completed projects including building bio-hybrid machines. Image from Elizabeth Innes.

While the researchers at EBICS are interested in uncovering the fundamental design rules and principles that govern biological materials, there is a need to train the next generation of engineers to build with biology. To do so, we designed a class at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, titled BioE 306: Biofabrication, focused on teaching undergraduate juniors and seniors to use 3D printers to design and build skeletal muscle-powered bio-bots. The curriculum for this class includes discussions of the ethical implications of building bio-hybrid machines, and the final project involves designing a new bio-bot that improves our fundamental understanding of this field. An evaluation of the class, presented in the publication titled “Design and integration of a problem-based biofabrication course into an undergraduate biomedical engineering curriculum” in the Journal of Biological Engineering showed that students benefited greatly from this form of experiential group learning. By testing their own hypotheses in lab, students practiced the scientific method, and established literacy with 3D bio-printing and bio-bot design and manufacture.

Raman, Ritu, et al. “Design and integration of a problem-based biofabrication course into an undergraduate biomedical engineering curriculum.” Journal of Biological Engineering 10.1 (2016): 10.
Post by: Ritu Raman.
Ritu Raman is an engineer and educator committed to introducing biological materials into the toolbox of every inventor. She received her B.S. in Mechanical Engineering, with a minor in Biomedical Engineering, from Cornell University magna cum laude in 2012. She receiver her M.S. (2013) and Ph.D. (2016) in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as an NSF Graduate Research Fellow (2014-2016) and NSF IGERT Fellow (2012-2014). For more information, visit: