Biotinkering 101

Our biggest challenge in this new century is to take an idea that seems abstract – sustainable development.

Kofi Annan

Over the years I have tried often how I can work in a fablab or a makerspace sustainably, the answer came last year when I discovered the DIY-Bio movement. What is DIY BIO? “Is a growing biotechnological social movement in which individuals, communities, and small organizations study biology and life science using the same methods as traditional research institutions” (Wikipedia). I searched online for some time and I always desisted in proposing this type of activity because the proposals that I found often used special tools and required specific knowledge.

I took courage after discovering the activities of Corinne Takara and her Nest Makerspace. Following her activities, I discovered that in addition to Biohacking: scientific experiments with biological material, especially genes, done by people who are not official experts or scientists (Cambridge Dictionary), there are also BioMaking and BioTinkering: That is, building or tinkering with materials of biological origin. BioTinkering was just what I was looking for to be able to learn with my primary school students.

Shortly after, the first classroom experimentation started and we produced a bioplastic with sodium alginate, a material extracted from the cell walls of brown algae and used in the kitchen as a gelling agent, and calcium lactate used as a leavening and acidity regulator in pastry.

A few days ago I had the opportunity to follow a Gary Stager webinar with other fellows, I have been following his work for some time but I had never had the opportunity to meet him personally. He was a great inspiration and insisted on a fundamental concept that I repeat to myself from time to time: Make it happen! Children learn even if they are not taught.

With this phrase in my head, I went to school, knowing only what I found on the TheTechInteractive website: how to make strings. I was in the same condition as my students, in the full exploration phase with the only willingness to learn with them.

First, we prepared materials, using sodium alginate to gel distilled water and adding food coloring to taste. We prepared dishes with the calcium bath and started this messy experience.

Fig. 1 Algae Strings

Fig. 2 Bracelet made with Algae strings

The results were fascinating! children started trying with shapes that were not too defined until one of them thought of trying to spread the alginate gel + water in a silicone mold, it was wonderful to understand that without any explanations and guided only by collaboration, curiosity, and creativity kids created wonderful works. We discovered later that this technique is used in molecular cooking for spherification, for example, bubble tea!


Next Steps: In the next experiments we would like to: 

  • Try to incorporate objects into the bioplastic or create a film that can decorate elements created with other materials:
  • To improve the conductivity of the bioplastic: we have formulated hypotheses on the use of lemon juice or water with added salt;
  • To create 3D printed customized molds to be used to shape bioplastics.