May 8

Frankenstein Project Celebration!

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A bird’s eye view of all the students and instructor Lee Ferdinand in the Frankenstein Literature course, created by a student.
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A view of the Literature class, in Legos, through a window.
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Teen Learning Lab students presented their bioethics projects to families, friends and a panel of experts in bioethics and education at TLL’s last class meeting last Friday. Instructor Dr. Ruth Kulmala is second from the left, in the back row. Nanette Elster, J.D., is far left with sunglasses, and Dr. Michele Kane, is third from the right in the front. Ms. Elster teaches bioethics law to graduate students at Loyola University’s Neiswanger Institute for Bioethics. Dr. Kane is head of the Gifted Education Master’s Program Northeastern Illinois University.

The Frankenstein Project has come to a close, after 25 weekly classes, guest speakers, and a very successful showing at the Illinois State University’s High School Science Symposium. We started Teen Learning Lab a year ago, thinking that we would have about 10 students, with some nice, private presentations at the end. These students have exceeded expectations with their determination, hard work, joy and good humor. The theme of the Frankenstein Project — the search for knowledge — often mirrored the students’ own search for knowledge. Just like the Creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,  these students read widely, both in their Frankenstein Literature course with Lee Ferdinand, but also in their Bioethics, Biomimicry and Biotechnology class with Dr. Ruth Kulmala. Just as Victor Frankenstein what it means to be human with his Creature, so did the students debate with each other over aspects of humanity and bioethics. Just as both Victor and the Creature came up against the limitations of their own humanity, our students faced their own limitations as they conducted their research for their bioethics projects, confronting trials and approaches that failed. And, just as Victor needed to tell his story to another adventurer, our students needed to present their work to other scientists at the ISU High School Science Symposium. However, unlike Victor Frankenstein, our students are going on to further adventures, either in more community college classes, or in next year’s Justice Project at Teen Learning Lab. So well done, TLL students! And enjoy more photos of your triumphs!



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As a final group project in the Frankenstein Literature class, students worked together to create a poem by counting predetermined, random number of pages and words in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The end result eerily echoes themes from the novel.
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Some of the team that explored whether Anki’s Cozmo artificial intelligence toy could be programmed to be a companion for the elderly.
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Some of the Electrophoresis team, which developed a less expensive technique for schools to use electrophoresis to teach students about DNA.
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Some of The Acetaminophen Project, which developed a campaign to teach the public about the dangers of acetaminophen toxicity. See more at their website.
April 30

TLL Goes to 2017 High School Science Symposium at Illinois State!

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Teen Learning Lab Students presented four research projects at the Illinois State University High School Science Symposium on April 28, 2017. Note their ‘business casual’ garb.

Congratulations, Teen Learning Lab students! After twenty-four weeks of reading, researching, studying, testing, discussing, debating, retesting, coding, designing and rehearsing, students at Teen Learning Lab got up before the sun on Friday morning to get to Normal, Illinois, by 8:30 a.m. to check in for the Illinois State University’s High School Science Symposium. They joined nearly 200 high school students from 15 schools around Illinois and nearby states to present their research to ISU professors for judging. And the students all presented their research to each other. It was an extremely rewarding day! Well done, TLL students!

Here’s a bunch of pictures!!!

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The Cozmo Team is ready.
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Some of The Acetaminophen Project Team.
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Electrophoresis gets set up.
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The Electrophoresis Team is ready to present.
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The Acetaminophen Project — Web version, gets ready.
April 23
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Students read their parodies in the Frankenstein Literature class.

Week 24! Parodies, Posters and a Professor

At the penultimate week of Teen Learning Lab’s Frankenstein Project, students in the Frankenstein Literature class read original parodies inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In the Bioethics, Biomimicry and Biotechnology class, students pasted together drafts of their posters, and proofed them for final editing. Dr. Yury Polikanov, who is researching the ribosome at UIC, reviewed the Electrophoresis project and gave feedback to the students that will help them focus their presentation for the Illinois State University High School Symposium on April 28.

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The Cozmo Team cuts and pastes their poster draft together before making corrections.
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Dr. Yury Polikanov reviews the equipment and video of the Electrophoresis Team.
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The Acetaminophen Team cuts and pastes their poster together while Dr. Kulmala goes over the chemistry.
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The Electrophoresis team pastes together a draft of their poster presentation.
April 8
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Teenaged coder, Lee, and the Frankenstein Code

Frankenstein and Coding

See that nice young man on the left in the picture? That is a Teen Coder. He likes coding. ALOT. He is very, very good at coding. I think it is safe to say he lives to code. He is standing next to Lee Ferdinand, the Frankenstein Literature instructor. In Lee’s class on Friday, Teen Coder made a presentation on his translation/interpretation of the story of creation in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein into computer code. He coded multiple computer languages to create a single sentence: WE ARE ONE….. It was awesome.

We don’t have grades at Teen Learning Lab. We want students to take intellectual risks without worrying about a grade. We want to encourage teens to try new things that are outside their comfort zones. Soon enough these teens will be off at colleges or specialized programs where they will have to work for grades. But during these high school years, we want to give them space to try something new. With time and encouragement, they can find a way from their passion into… anything. Like a 21st Century teenage boy linking computer coding to an early 19th Century Gothic/horror Romantic novel written by a teenage girl who was reflecting on creativity, family, science, and the search for knowledge.

April 2

Languages: Words! Words! Words!

On Friday, Week 22, the day was filled with language, words and writing. Students started out watching Peter Rose’s experimental film: The Pressures of the Text,” to launch a discussion of the symbolism of words and language. About Peter Rose, from the Harvard Film Archive:

His films ridicule the verbal obfuscation of academia while treasuring the beauty of words as they detach from their intended meanings – splitting open the closed-circuit of intellectual jargon and releasing these spectral shapes, allowing them to fall as they may upon the audience’s surprised imaginations.

Bioethics was a continuation of the language theme, with students moving into the writing phase of their projects. In their groups they tried to document and explain their work from the last few months. Writing! And still, lots of enthusiasm!!

March 26, 2017

Prepping for Science Symposium

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The Cozmo team’s plan.

On Friday in Bioethics, the three teams made significant progress in planning their posters and abstracts for the Illinois State High School Symposium.

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The Acetaminophen Project is hard at work. Really.
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The Electrophoresis team discusses their plan– their design was tested at the Chicago Teen-Tween Coop this week.

Translation, Language: Frankenstein

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What is language? How is the development of language connected to Frankenstein? And, no, it’s not that the movie monster was monosyllabic– Shelley’s Creature was more verbally sophisticated than many undergrads. Teen Learning Lab students last Friday tried to answer that question in a class that ranged from Jan Svankmajer’s 1988 Alice to samples of languages such as the language of cinema and the language of computers to a look at the aleph, the early glyph that was the basis of the ancient alphabet that gave rise to Hebrew and our own alphabet. The language of humans, as well as the fungus that connects tree roots, all were considered. How does this connect to Mary Shelley? The class considered that her progressive mother was a founder of feminism. One core idea of feminism is that gender inequality has a basis in language. They considered the idea that when one group controls the language, (such as naming things) they control the power in that society.

March 17, 2017
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Fyodor Dostoevsky

Psych profile of Golyadkin in The Double

Paranoid, insecure, anti-social, narcissistic, isolated, mentally unstable: all are characteristics of Golyadkin in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Double, according to the students in the Frankenstein Literature class. Discussions ranged from whether Golyadkin was “heroic” to whether assigning psychiatric diagnoses to fictional characters was a legitimate form of literary analysis.

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Students work in small groups to find evidence in The Double for a psychiatric assessment of Golyadkin.

Looking at characters through the prism of psychoanalysis is useful, said instructor Lee Ferdinand, because it helps understand how such a character emerges from the extreme dehumanization found in certain societies, such as tsarist Russia. Students learned that The Double was written as Freud was questioning his theories, and as people in Russia and Europe began questioning their societies, reading literature like The Double and Karl Marx’s works, and eventually rising to attempt to overthrow their rulers. Examining how environments create certain characters ties back to the Creature in Frankenstein, and how the environment of Shelley’s novel created both Victor and his Creature.

March 11, 2017
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The Cozmo Team has a Zoom meeting with engineers at Anki Corp. in San Francisco. Cozmo is a little toy robot that Anki created to use artificial intelligence to learn. The Teen Learning Lab Cozmo team is trying to figure out how to program Cozmo to do simple tasks that can help elderly people. The blue cubes are blocks Cozmo can play with, and can identify several of the glyphs on the sides of the cube.

Our Cozmo Team Consults with Anki Engineers on AI Coding Issues

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Anki Engineers Mark, Michelle and Kaiser talked to TLL Cozmo teens for about an hour on Friday, passing on advice and suggestions for the Cozmo Elderly Companion Project.

Engineers who created Anki’s Cozmo, an artificial intelligence robot, offered suggestions, advice and encouragement to our Cozmo Project team on Friday. “People like you are making him do things we never thought of,” said Kaiser Hwang, of the San Francisco-based Anki. “People like can add to what Cozmo can do, and the possibilities are endless.” He added: “We are just shocked–it’s amazing” what the TLL teens are doing. “We were thinking university students would be using Cozmo, and we’re shocked” that high school-aged teens like the TLL Cozmo team is working to adapt Cozmo.  The scope of the project is to program Cozmo to be a companion to the elderly. Specific tasks planned are for Cozmo to dispense correct medication at the proper time and play cognitive games with the elder person, keeping track of game scores as a way of evaluating an elder person’s cognitive ability. Before all that can be attempted, the team needs to address the coding; the meeting with Anki engineers seemed to be the expert help needed!

The Biothics of Human Experimentation

In Bioethics, the students discussed when it is ever ethical for scientists to experiment on humans. Dr. Ruth Kulmala discussed her own research into asthma medication, in which she had to meet lengthy requirements of the Food &  Drug Administration before she could test a new kind of asthma inhaler on children. She discussed the benefits of the FDA’s massive medication database, which includes documentation of all the drug trials conducted, including all the effects and side effects of medication. The loss of the FDA would mean that not only would scientists lose access to this accumulated knowledge but that the consumers would lose baseline protections against unscrupulous drug companies who market their medications on an unsuspecting public.

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Canada has a stamp memorializing “The Cremation of Sam McGee”!! He looks happy.

Agency in poetry, contemporary art and student stories

In Frankenstein on Friday students wrapped up their study of Agency by reading each others’ original fairy tales, hearing a student’s reading  of “The Cremation of Sam McGee” and watching videos of where they tried to write stories that incorporated magical items into every day life. In original stories students tried their hand at creating stories in which the characters in ordinary life used a magical object to help them take control over their lives. Because Teen Learning Lab does not issue grades, students are free to take intellectual risks in their work.

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Jean Tinguely’s automatic writing machine, “Meta-Matic No. 6” 1959. The parts move on their own like a mobile, causing the pen to make repeated but unique jiggly marks on paper. The art “makes” it’s own art!

Students also considered the agency of the characters in the long poem about Sam McGee, a dying Alaskan gold miner from Tennessee who made his friend promise to cremate him after he died. Instructor Lee Ferdinand then introduced the students to the art of Jean Tinguely, who used found objects to make perpetual motion machines that could make pen marks, or noises. They considered how these art pieces had their own autonomy and agency that was independent of the artist’s actions.

March 3, 2017

The Acetaminophen Project

tap-logoThe Acetaminophen Project, whose logo is to the right, is working to develop a website that will include information for the public about the dangers of acetaminophen toxicity. The website will include FAQs about the prevalence of acetaminophen in both over-the-counter and prescription medications. One cool feature that is planned will be a calculator in which users can input the medication and dosages they are taking to find out whether the combined levels of acetaminophen are safe. The calculator will include dosage information for common over-the-counter drugs as well as prescription painkillers, anti-inflammatories and fever-reducing medications, all of which can contain small dosages of acetaminophen in addition to the named medication.

To get the word out, the TAP group plans on scheduling educational presentations where they will spread the word on the toxicity of acetaminophen. They have started both a Tumblr and Instagram account to publicize their project. Some group members plan on continuing the project long after the class ends.

The Acetaminophen Group meets on Friday.
Feb. 26, 2017

Zombies & Altered States

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Last Friday seemed to be a day to consider states of non-humanness. In the Frankenstein Literature course, part of the student discussion started with discussing how Mary Shelley’s work subverts our expectations for different genres. Frankenstein is never quite a horror story, nor a fantasy, nor a gothic novel. It takes an element of the fantastic and uses that to reconsider a wide variety of norms in society. In the discussion about an upcoming assignment to write their own folktale or fairy tale, set in modern day, which uses some fantastic or magical element to shed light on an ordinary structure or assumption in every day life. Inevitably, the discussion veered toward stories about zombies! THAT got everyone’s attention! Image result for altered states book

In Bioethics, students discussed the novel Altered States, and examined how the quality and value of human life is altered when real death is not a risk. That quickly led to a heated debate about what it means to be human, and, if one could reprogram themselves for the next incarnation, what would they change? Would they change their eye color? Eye shape? Would they change their expectations in life?

In their project work, students moved ahead. In the Cozmo Elder Companion project, students composed an email to engineers at the Anki Corp., asking for help with some of the coding. In the Electrophoresis project, students filmed a demonstration of their DNA testing kit. In the Acetaminophen Project, students worked on designing a website that will educate the public on the dangers of accidentally overdosing on acetaminophen.  And then, at the end of the day, there was some Cozmo Sumo Wrestling.

Involved debate: How you would change what it means to be human.


The phone is filming the slow drift of the red, yellow and blue dyes, as they separate in the Electrophoresis kit.

The Acetaminophen Education Group organizes its website.
Cozmo Sumo Wrestling is a relaxing way to for students to end a long day of work!
Feb. 17, 2017

Prepping for Maker Faire Chicago

The Electrophoresis Group films a how-to video.

Students today worked on their proposals for Maker Faire Chicago, and continued work on their projects in Bioethics.

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Acetaminophen team works on describing their project.
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Who’s responsible: Victor or the Creature?

The Frankenstein Literature course began exploring agency in Mary Shelley’s work, and a great discussion developed over how much agency the Creature and Victor have, and whether Victor is responsible for the Creature’s behavior. Questions considered: Is there a sense of morality that is applied equally in the universe of Shelley’s work? If the Creature is rejected by society, is the Creature held to the moral standards of that society? Who bears responsibility for the Creature’s actions?

Feb. 13, 2017
Robert Delaunay’s “Champs de Mars: The Red Tower, painted between 1911-23, can be seen at the Art Institute Chicago.

The Creature in Art, Star Trek and Jurassic Park

Last Friday in the Frankenstein Literature class, student presenters demonstrated how the concepts in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein continued to reverberate well into the 20th Century. Robert Delaunay’s  Cubist painting of the Eiffel Tower shows the ironworks tower, which was originally painted red, bursting onto the landscape as a modernist creature. Another student delved into the back story of Khan, the character from the Star Trek franchise, who was a marvel of modern science, yet brought destruction to the Star Trek crew.


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In another interesting presentation, a student explored the parallels and differences between Frankenstein and both the movie Jurassic Park and Michael Crichton’s novel. Films of both works focused more on the “mad science” aspect of scientists creating or recreating new life, rather than the ethical concerns that are prevalent in both works.

In the Bioethics class, students worked on their projects then watched Blade Runner, as a prelude to the course considering ethics of cloning humans.

Feb. 3, 2017

Representations of Frankenstein

Some of the students gave presentations on objects exploring the meaning of representation and connecting their objects to representations of aspects in Frankenstein.

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Individuals, by Andrew Rogers, photo courtesy of NYC Parks and Recreation

Students saw a presentation on  Andrew Rogers’ sculpture, Individuals, its depiction of the human body, comparing that to Mary Shelley’s theme of the creation of a human body. Another student presented on the short film, World of Tomorrow, about a third-generation clone seeking to prolong her life at the end of the world.  A third student showed a toy her younger sister made: “It’s a monster toy that terrorizes everything,” she said. And finally, inevitably, a student presented on Rocky Horror Picture Show and contrasted Victor Frankenstein with Dr. Frank N. Furter. No time-warping was committed, but all the presentations instigated vigorous discussions!

Presenting on World of Tomorrow short animated film.
The monster toy that terrorizes all other toys!

In Bioethics, students worked on their projects before watching the film GATTACA.

Students work on teaching Cozmo to go up and down a ramp.
Jan. 27, 2017

The Hand Standing in for the Body

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Scene shot from Yvonne Rainer’s 1966 short film, The Hand

Continuing the discussion about Representation, the Frankenstein Literature class watched a short film, The Hand, made in 1966 by American dancer Yvonne Rainer. Rainer, who is also a choreographer and fimmaker, is known for her minimalist style. The film launched a class discussion on the body as a site of expression, and the ways in which this connects back to Shelley’s Frankenstein. The class also delved into Shelley’s place as an author, and her historical place as subverting the norms of the time that narrowly defined women’s roles to that of mother and wife. Creation for women was limited to that of childbirth only, and other forms of creativity using the hands — writing or art or music — reserved only for men. The class also discussed two essays essays on the role of the Creature in Frankenstein: as either a warped representation of Man, or a “grotesque” representation of a woman’s written creation.

Bioethics student group work

Students continued working in their groups on their long-term projects in the Bioethics class.

The Electrophoresis Group meets.
The Cozmo Elderly Companion Group meets.
The Acetaminophen Education Group meets.
Jan. 21, 2017

Frankenstein & the Human Body

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Picture of Dorian Gray, by Ivan Albright, 1944, Art Institute of Chicago

The Frankenstein Literature course looked at different ways the human body is represented in art, and discussed metaphors of the body and how it relates to Mary Shelley’s work. They discussed different works of art, including Ivan Albright’s painting of The Picture of Dorian Gray, written by Oscar Wilde. They looked at the different ways that painters like Leonardo DaVinci, John Singer Sargent and Pablo Picasso and others depicted the human body. Shelley’s work raises questions about where the conscience resides, and students examined artworks to gain a glimpse of where we think the conscience resides.

Team B students prepare their side for debate on ethical issues regarding deafness.

Bioethics Debate Day & Project Prep

In the wake of reading Michael Chorost’s Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human, students prepared lightning rounds of debate on ethical issues facing the deaf community: Should deaf children be required to get cochlear implants? Should deaf children be required to learn oral forms of communication besides American Sign Language?

After the debates, students organized themselves into groups to develop a list of stakeholders and an outline of tasks for their group projects this semester.

Team A prepares their arguments for the debate on cochlear implants.
Jan. 13, 2017

Representation, Agency & Language in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

In the Frankenstein Literature class second semester, students will examine Representation, Agency and Language in terms of Frankenstein’s impact on literature, history and art. Students started organizing their individual research projects on Objects that fit into the Frankenstein universe: films, sculptures, essays, paintings, performances, other literature. Students also are reading the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, which Mary Shelley heavily edited, and comparing it to her 1818 edition, which they read last semester. This semester also has the students examining the impact of the Frankenstein story on American culture and it’s evolution into a metaphor on aspects of American life, including race.

Bioethics projects are developing


Students in the Bioethics class started the second semester discussing which semester projects to pursue. They also planned out their syllabus.

The Bioethics class began the second semester discussing biotechnical human augmentation, particularly in the case of Michael Chorost and his book Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human, in which he discusses the minicomputer inserted into his brain to help him hear for the first time in his life. Class projects include: Tylenol Education Project, in which students design promotional and curriculum materials to educate patients about the toxicity of acetaminophin, which is the number one cause of accidental overdose deaths in the world. A second project is to program the computer toy Cozmo to be a better companion for the elderly. A third project involves designing a  more efficient, comprehensive and less expensive electrophoresis kit that can test for DNA and be used in the classroom. Students are also encouraged to develop their own projects.

Jan. 4, 2017

Powering up Frankenstein Project


Above is the whiteboard after a Fall Bioethics class, with all the assignments for the Electrophoresis Project the class is tackling.

Happy New Year! It was a thrilling fall semester; lots of interesting conversations and debates have emerged in both the Literature and Bioethics classes. For the next semester, students in the Bioethics, Biomimicry and Biomedical Engineering class will be gearing up their group projects: designing a better electrophoresis educational kit; programming a toy robot to be a virtual aid for elders; as well as other projects. The Frankenstein Literature class will be exploring permutations and repercussions of the Frankenstein story through history, literature and film. Lots of exciting things planned!

And now, here is an inspiring quote from Frankenstein:

“Live, and be happy, and make others so.”

Student Fall Semester Projects

Collages, collections, curations: Teen Learning Lab students presented their end-of-semester projects last month in the Frankenstein literature class, demonstrating a wide range of creative interpretations of a variety of themes found in Mary Shelley’s novel. Below are just some of the presentations– posters and dioramas– that were on display at the end of the semester.


Above is a collage of collected comic images that illustrate various aspects of Frankenstein.


A variety of colors found in natural objects referenced by Victor Frankenstein.


Above is a diorama illustrating the passage of time in Frankenstein.

Above the class watches a video created by one of the students.

We saw a wide variety of interpretations of the many themes found in Shelley’s book– it was inspiring to see how deeply many of the students’ took their studies!

During the winter break, instructors are preparing for next semester, which for both Frankenstein Literature and Bioethics will expand on the ideas and themes explored in this first semester.  Enjoy the break, everyone! Classes resume Jan. 13, 2017.

Oct. 15, 2016

Separating Particles via Electrophoresis


TLL students construct their own electrophoresis devices on Oct. 14 to separate particles of different dyes. The dye separates into unique footprints, similar to separating amino acid segments of DNA. The lab is part of the Bioethics and Biomimicry class, which explores the intersection of science and ethics, examining recent cases of historical violations of ethics and human rights.


Above is a more expensive electrophoresis device.


Watching the particles separate.

Sept. 17, 2016

Mary Shelley and Henrietta Lacks  Image result for image of henrietta Lacks

Above left, a portrait of Mary Shelley in 1840, from Wikipedia. Right, Henrietta Lacks, in photo printed in the New York Times, Aug. 17, 2013. Photo used courtesy of Lacks Family, via The Henrietta Lacks Foundation

The Frankenstein Project launched its Week 1 with lectures and discussions of the lives of two women who died 100 years apart: Mary Shelley and Henrietta Lacks. The rooms buzzed with interesting discussions and conversations both inside and outside of class, about ghost stories, the Enlightenment and Romanticism, and the ethics of companies making money from selling patients’ cells and tissues without their knowledge or consent. It’s an exciting start to our year-long project!

Classes start Friday, Sept. 16!

Sept. 13, 2016
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Above is a copy of a limited edition of Frankenstein that was offered for sale by Cemetery Dance Productions in 2012.

Student orientation was electrifying last week, and now students are motivated to read, read, read in preparation for the start of classes this Friday.

Frankenstein Literature Book List!

 Aug. 13, 2016

The book list for the Frankenstein Literature Course has gone out on the Teen Learning Lab listserv. Here are some of the titles– These books look awesome–  always glad to see Hieronymus Bosch on a cover.

Summer Reading and Syllabus for Bioethics!

Aug., 3 2016

Summer reading for Bioethics is Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks !!!

And here is the textbook, available to rent

Welcome to the Frankenstein Project Blog of the Teen Learning Lab! Here we will document students’ progress through the year as they study themes found in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and examine historical and contemporary cases studies of bioethics. The year will culminate in independent and group projects that will engage the public in a dialogue over the intersection of science and art, specifically biology and technology.

Right now instructors are compiling their syllabi and reading lists, and the Teen Learning Lab is preparing registration materials. Class registration is due Aug. 15, 2016. Enrolled students should check their emails for further information.