A Tangible Gene-Editing Platform for Early Childhood


Project Brief

CRISPEE is the result of an NSF-funded project from the Human-Computer Lab at Wellesley College, in collaboration with the Developmental Technology Research Group at Tufts University.

Through playful interaction with CRISPEE, along with a curriculum in an informal learning environment, young children are introduced to the basics of problem-solving with genetic engineering. The form of CRISPEE combines the shape and function of existing laboratory equipment with materials commonly found in children's toys, such as wood, felt, and Velcro.

CRISPEE was intentionally designed to be simple and inexpensive to manufacture, to make it accessible to all children. It runs off an Arduino Uno and features arcade buttons, conductive velcro, NeoPixels, and pressure sensors. It was manufactured using a laser cutter with materials easily found at a hardware store.

CRISPEE underwent three iterations and was developed through collaboration with teachers and other early childhood educators, with multiple rounds of testing in multi-day bioengineering camps and an exhibit at the Boston Children's Museum. It has been featured in numerous peer-reviewed journals and presented at conferences.

Co-PIs : Dr. Orit Shaer, Wellesley College; Dr. Marina Umashi-Bers, Tufts University

Collaborator: Dr. Amanda Strawhacker

Generously funded by NSF grant #IIS-1563932

I would like to acknowledge the excellent work from student researchers at the Wellesley HCI Lab and Tufts DevTech Research Group, who participated in the testing, prototyping process, and curricular developent for CRISPEE.

Demo Video



“CRISPEE: A Tangible Gene Editing Platform for Early Childhood.” August 2018, Milieux Institute, Montreal, QC, Canada.

Poster Sessions

Demo Session

”CRISPEE: a Tangible Gene Editing Platform for Early Childhood.” Proceedings of the Twelfth International Conference of Tangible, Embedded, and Embodied Interaction, March 2018, Stockholm, Sweden.


Strawhacker, A., Verish, C., Shaer, O., & Bers, M. (2020). Young Children’s Learning of Bioengineering with CRISPEE: a Developmentally Appropriate Tangible User Interface. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 1-21.

Verish, C., Strawhacker, A., Bers, M., & Shaer, O. (2020). CRISPEE: An Interactive Museum Exhibit for Engaging Children with Biological Engineering. In Proceedings of the 2020 Connected Learning Summit (Conference cancelled).

Verish, C., Strawhacker, A., Bers, M., & Shaer, O. (2018, March). CRISPEE: a tangible gene editing platform for early childhood. In Proceedings of the Twelfth International Conference on Tangible, Embedded, and Embodied Interaction (pp. 101-107).

Iterative Design Process

Prototyping Phase

The prototyping phase of CRISPEE involved understanding the hardware requirements of the toy and designing the physical form.

CRISPEE runs on an Arduino Uno (or Arduino Mega). There are three steps to the CRISPEE program -- it must identify the blocks that are placed through reading a unique resistor, and check for accuracy; then, it must look for a shaking motion in the platform; finally, it displays the color that was created by the chosen combination of blocks.

CRISPEE's form is inspired by existing gene sequencing equipment found in real laboratories. We sought to develop a child-friendly user interface with interactive features. To that end, the machine features a sliding platform in the center, in which the blocks are placed, that is physically moved similar to an oscillating mixing platform in a laboratory. The panel to the right was slanted to make it easy to view for small children. We sought to make CRISPEE simple and understandable, even to children who couldn't read, and made the conscious decision to forego a screen. Instead, children move through the process of using CRISPEE by pressing labeled buttons in order, and following LED indicators on the interface.


The first version of CRISPEE was completed in October 2017 and pilot tested with children. The results of this pilot test were presented as a demo session in March 2018 at the Tangible, Embedded, and Embodied Interactions conference in Stockholm, Sweden.


CRISPEE is made of wood, and features wooden blocks with velcro and felt, arcade buttons, and colorful LEDs. The toy is large, to make it easy for children to use, and heavy, so that it doesn't move around when children engage the mixing mechanism.


In CRISPEE V1, the blocks had to be placed in order by color. When three blocks were placed, and the first button was pressed, the LEDs under the block slots would light up green (if that block was correct) or red (if that block was incorrect or missing). Once the sequence was correct, children moved on to the mixing phase by pressing the second button. The block platform was on drawer slides to facilitate a smooth mixing mechanism. When mixing was complete, the LEDs under the block slots would flash green, indicating that the child could move on to step 3. When the third button was pressed, the firefly lit up in the color combo the child programmed in step 1.


The results of the pilot study informed the design of the second iteration of CRISPEE. Children had trouble understanding the mixing mechanism, even after explicit instruction, necessitating further LED indication lights. The specific ordering of red-green-blue blocks added unneeded complexity to play, and was at odds with the concepts we sought to teach. We also wanted to add more variation to the interface through faceplates featuring different characters.


A second iteration of CRISPEE was completed in February 2018. This version was tested multiple times in 3-day bioengineering day camps with children ages 5-7. In addition to testing the interface, we also tested curricular elements such as free-play science activity stations, a storybook, and guided CRISPEE play. Later testing looked at short museum interactions with the interface, in collaboration with the Boston Children's Museum.

Major changes to this iteration included interchangeable faceplates (an angler fish and jellyfish are shown in the image above) and new mixing arrows on the platform, activated during step 2.

A storybook was developed to give more information about bioengineering and to introduce children to a problem that could be solved with CRISPEE. In the story, Bob the firefly cannot produce light, and he loses his friends in the forest. He meets Pam the Bioengineer, who shows him her lab and uses CRISPEE to give Bob a new light.


An interesting result of these studies was the ethical questions that children asked about bioengineering, especially "Why would scientists want to change an animal?" We decided to explore these ethical issues with children in later testing.


The third iteration of CRISPEE was completed in February 2019 and featured some major changes conceived during a month-long prototyping workshop with students from Tufts and Wellesley. The number of buttons was reduced from 3 to 1, with the program progressing automatically. The face of the interface was reversed, so that the progression of steps folowed a counter-clockwise, left-to-right format, similar to reading. It was also pitched to a steeper angle to make it easier for kids to see.


In this version, the block indicator lights showed green for correct, yellow for duplicate, and red for missing blocks. When children got to the mixing phase, the bar of NeoPixels at the base of the interface moved back and forth to indicate mixing, and filled from left to right as mixing progressed. Finally, the firefly lit up on its own once mixing completed.