Education and Public Engagement
This year, our team wanted to truly diversify our outreach programs and engage with more members of our community As a result, we first developed a comprehensive methodology that deconstructed the key aspects of a successful public engagement activity. Following that, we built our outreach plan and followed it all the way through. Our team wanted to dissect what helps distinguish an effective public engagement activity. For that, our team analyzed many projects from the last several years and also reflected on our personal intuition about how to engage with scientists and non-scientists. We also wanted to communicate our findings to other iGEM teams in the future, and hope that they can build upon this foundation.
Design and Dialogue
With these principles in mind, our team wanted to maximize our impact and reach out to as many different target groups as possible. To accomplish this, our team performed the following activities:
Wrote a 200-page textbook about relevant topics in synthetic biology and are working to implement it globally (in Nigeria) as well as California
Published the Periodic Table of Elements for Synthetic Biology, an interactive app and in-print primer that summarizes 30+ of the key principles for those interested in synthetic biology (including techniques, scientists, diseases, and other relevant concepts)
Designed a game for K-3 students that helped get them interested in synthetic biology
Performed a diversity analysis that analyzed the role of the LGBTQ+ community in synthetic biology research and established a four-point plan that the iGEM community
Participated in the Global Empowerment Summit at UCSD with over 350+ people and communicated our vision for using synthetic biology to improve healthcare and diagnostics
Conducted workshops and presentations for 60+ high school students
enhanced entrepreneurial literacy amongst researchers and the iGEM community by creating a database of past Entrepreneurship projects and compiling a guide about how to write a business plan
Encouraged greater interest in synthetic biology by proposing a “wetlab incubator” for projects on campus
Activity 1: Textbook for high school students and undergraduate students with NGSS standards
People: One of the primary segments that we wanted to interact with was high school students , who would be the synthetic biologists of the future. We interviewed high school students across three school districts and realized that one of the reasons for a lack of interest in iGEM and research competitions was the way that the Campbell Biology book is structured. Thus, we set out to compile a textbook that was organized in a logical manner and covered interesting, relevant topics.
Design and Dialogue: We consulted teachers and students for their input on our book . Our team took the condensed primer from the 2017 UC San Diego team and dissected what had gone wrong. We noticed that one of the biggest problems was that the conversation was still very one-sided . We had not done adequate needs-finding the last time, and it reflected in that the textbook did not look professional, easy to read, or conveyed information in a useful manner to students.
After consulting Ms. Cora DaCosta Benoun, a biology teacher in Pleasanton Unified School District, she emphasized that it would be a great idea if we could implement correctly. She commented that the reading checkpoints needed to accurately reflect the ideas being discussed; she also suggested that we design our book so that it could address a number of standards for NGSS ; as a result, we implemented thorough reading checkpoints and included a new section for all of our topics: a brief summary section that requires students to recall the information and summarize it in a succinct manner , embed outside texts and ask relevant questions about covered concepts , Ask students to design research investigations into specific aspects that intrigued them, Ask them to use math and analytical skills in data analysis for all the topics
In addition, we interviewed students at Torrey Pines High School and the Intro to Biotechnology teacher, Mr. Brian Bodas, to see which topics were most relevant to the students . They expressed interest in stem cells, recent diseases such as Ebola and Zika virus, and thought it would be more helpful if they could get exposure to some of the molecular biology techniques. We incorporated all of these topics in the second version of our topic.
Lastly, we partnered with nonprofits locally and globally. No Stoppin’, located in Northern California, to help guide incorporation into existing school districts , including Fremont Unified School District. This allowed us an effective channel and to gather more feedback so that we can improve the quality of information we are providing. We also partnered with the Yowimadi Foundation, with our contact Michael Okoro, postdoctoral fellow at Cold Harbor, worked in Nigeria to help distribute our textbook to schoolchildren in Nigeria . It was extremely heartening to see such a positive response, and we hope to build on this in the future.
Reflection: It was extremely exciting to see the work from last year’s team help guide a significant cornerstone of this year’s public engagement work. As a team, everyone truly enjoyed the activity for a number of reasons, namely interacting with the kids and getting their feedback on the topics that they wanted to learn about. In addition, it was a very common feeling amongst our team as we were writing the textbook: it was quite fun to write about these topics and really reconnect with the amazing science that is at the core of synthetic biology. In the end, we published over 200 pages of detailed, verified information. To add to the overall utility and enhance implementation in biology curriculum, we researched the NGSS standards and tailored the content discussion around these key concepts.
Please note that we have uploaded one of the preliminary versions for one of the 24 topics for this year's textbook but the full version will be available in hard copy at the Jamboree. We have topics for the central dogma, infectious diseases, gene regulation, genome sequencing, fundamentals of cancer, fundamentals of microfluidics, stem cells, metabolic engineering, antibiotics, antivirals, biosensors, protein engineering, medical data and privacy, gene therapy, PCR, CRISPR, Zika, Cloning, epigenetics, GMOs.
Activity 2: Periodic Table of Synthetic Biology
People: Although our textbook was designed for individuals with a technical background who were interested in furthering their knowledge, our team also understood that many individuals who are interested in synthetic biology are hindered by fear of the vast amounts of information. Rather than immersing themselves in the depths of technical information, they were looking for an easier way of approaching that information.
Design and Dialogue: After talking to several students at our school’s synthetic biology club, our team came up with the idea for a handout that succinctly summarized relevant ideas in synthetic biology. Our initial idea was a synthetic biology dictionary that could define relevant terms. However, our internal team discussion left us feeling that it would be important to define the relationship between the term and associate it with a core principle of synthetic biology. To correctly convey this information, it would take more than just one or two lines of material. Instead, we decided to pivot to an illustrated encyclopedia that would cover relevant topics in about a page or so. This would spark interest and encourage individuals to dive deeper.
After talking to one of our sponsors, SGI-DNA, they expressed interest in helping us disseminate the information. However, they felt that an illustrated encyclopedia may not be the best option for all the people we were trying to reach; instead, they encouraged us to focus on a way to condense the information that would make it easier to retain. We incorporated this feedback by designing a mini-periodic table that focused on four “blocks”: relevant concepts in synthetic biology and circuits, famous scientists, relevant techniques, and important diseases that synthetic biology may be able to address.
Talking to students during the first week of school helped us realize that a very effective way to disseminate the information was also needed. We decided that supplementing our encyclopedia and condensed periodic table handout with an app may result in greater interest.
Reflection : This was a very interesting idea, and as a team, we were not completely sure about how individuals would react. Part of the challenge was determining the key principles of synthetic biology, and it goes without saying that our work does not encompass all the amazing aspects of synthetic biology. One of the particular areas of interest was our target demographic: although we had originally designed it for high school students and undergraduates, talking to SGI-DNA make us realize that it would also be viable for adults who were looking to learn more about synthetic biology. In order to address these individuals, we also included some of the more technically interesting elements. The feedback and positive response was very heartwarming and helped remind us that synthetic biology has something of interest for all.
Here is a screenshot of our landing page; at the Jamboree, we will have a paper version and an app version! Please come check us out!
Activity 3: Game for Grades 3-6 Schoolchildren
People: The final component of our educational suite was to address the youngest demographic that we thought would be able to enjoy the beauty of synthetic biology, namely elementary school students.
Design and Dialogue: We initially wanted to make several handouts for K-3 that would be very basic and explain core principles of biology; however, it became quickly apparent that a text-based solution would not be ideal for students at this age because they were not ready for that particular mode of learning. After talking to several school teachers, we realized that a strategy-based game be a better way to get students excited about science.
One of the key aspects, first introduced in life science classes for elementary school students. Is understanding basic cell anatomy as well as cellular organelles with their associated functions. Some curricula also include the basic equations of cellular respiration and photosynthesis.
Each player is given their own cytoplasm starting board to begin, making them the creator of their own cell. The game proceeds by collecting the fundamental macromolecules (nucleic acids, proteins, lipids, and carbohydrates) that are used for organelle synthesis. The students learn about the importance of the central dogma, which emphasizes that DNA serves as the genetic code for protein. Students become aware of the functions of the following organelles: nucleus, ribosomes, mitochondria (generates energy that can be traded for carbohydrates or lipids, Golgi apparatus (assists with macromolecule transportation), smooth ER (lipid production), and vacuole (which serves as a macromolecule “bank”). Students learn about the role of ATP in such processes and the process of expending energy in organelle synthesis; they also learn about the role of lipids in the phospholipid bilayer of the cell membrane and its role in defending the cell from unknown substances. Event cards teach students how viruses, bacteria, or other pathogens impact the cell.
We also talked to elementary school teachers and inquired about their feedback. Mrs. Manju Goyal, curriculum coordinator at Golden Oak Montessori, had the following statement: “The team initially approached me to understand what the core curriculum includes for early education in science and technology in hopes of creating an informative game for students. Since the purpose of the game was to provide students with an overview of molecular biology, I recommended they tailor the content towards an age range slightly more mature than K-3 since younger students wouldn’t be able to grasp biology beyond a surface level. As a result, the team pivoted their game to focus on students between grades 3-6 where concepts such as a cell, viruses, and cell organelles could be introduced. I am thoroughly impressed with how the team presents these complex topics through a simple game that shows the interactions behind various biological components in the cell. The game also enhances student understanding of how these different pieces work together to maintain overall body health. Since the game requires students to build their own cells using property and event cards, students must exercise creative thinking which is a key component of the Montessori philosophy. I believe a further reviewed and productized version of this game could greatly enable students interested in learning more about the underlying concepts in STEM.
Reflection: Our cellular processes and organelles game provided an interactive experience that included trading in macromolecules and ATP energy to build organelles and exploit their functions, as well as exploring the potential threats to a cell and emphasizing how its phospholipid bilayer membrane serves as its first line of defense.
From designing and testing this game, we learned that schoolchildren respond most enthusiastically when there is an end goal, as well as a competitive aspect to the activity. This encourages them to make the most strategic decisions when applying the abilities of their organelles and deciding which macromolecules to trade in. The children also suggested providing an easily accessible key, along with a short biological explanation of the actual function of each component to facilitate learning of the real life biological roles. Additionally, we learned that it would be helpful to provide a video tutorial for the instructions of the game, as younger children responded better to demonstration and visuals rather than merely reading the manual.
In future developments of the game, we hope to incorporate, in greater detail, the processes of the central dogma by including the roles of transcription and translation, as well as RNAs as a piece of the game. We also hope to expand the diversity of the cells, allowing players to choose whether they want to be an animal cell or a plant cell. This would introduce the process of photosynthesis, and allow the students to be able to draw differences between the processes and compositions of the different types of eukaryotic cells.
Activity 4: Inclusion and Diversity Report
People: We felt that up to this point, we had not addressed the needs of one of the most crucial stakeholders in the synthetic biology community - the iGEM teams themselves!
Design and Dialogue:
In his Nature article, Jon Freeman writes that “heteronormative assumptions can still create less conscious forms of bias, and an unwelcoming environment that puts scientists from sexual and gender minorities (LGBTQ) at a disadvantage.” It is well known that individuals that identify with certain genders and sexualities are underrepresented and often discriminated against in science and technology. Though research on LGBTQ people in STEM is scarce, data does show that sexual minorities are more likely to drop out of STEM degrees at a higher rate than women overall, as well as report more negative workplace experiences. It is thus imperative to generate greater awareness about and act accordingly upon measures that increase diversity and inclusivity.
In addition to disparities currently present in science, recent political events encouraged us to write our iGEM diversity report and investigate further into the climate that disadvantaged groups face in synthetic biology. In December 2017, the Trump Administration gave a list of forbidden words to the CDC, which included the following: "vulnerable," "entitlement," "diversity," "transgender," "fetus," "evidence-based" and "science-based." The words were reportedly banned because they were too controversial, though some CDC offices require use of some of those words in reports and writings. For example, the CDC’s work with HIV prevention amongst transgender people to reduce health disparities and their work with birth defects and research on the developing fetus represent some instances where the words would be used
Language and communication represent the foundational steps towards building a better environment for marginalized groups of individuals; without being able to talk freely about certain issues, there is no way for said issues to be normalized as they should be. Without the support of mainstream sources of public influence, diversity initiatives suffer, visibility decreases, and there is no benefit to science overall (Freeman). Invisibility is a huge problem for women and sexual minorities in STEM – little dialogue and role models are either present or even spoken about. For example, few know that Alan Turing, the founder of artificial intelligence, was gay. By simply knowing that sexual minorities exist and language is open and inclusive in a field, LGBTQ-identifying individuals can feel more comfortable and thrive in their environments.
In anticipation and response to this report, our team made it an effort to practice use of inclusive language, personal pronouns, and exercise impartial decision-making and responsibility distribution. Though certain genders and sexual minorities represent the minority in most places, taking the time to acknowledge that some people have struggles regarding certain issues makes them feel welcome and safe. It is this kind of an environment that ultimately produces the best quality work. With minimal effort, a community is shown that awareness is being spread about them, and it was with this in mind that we ultimately decided to assess inclusivity in iGEM.
Finally, we used our diversity report’s findings in order to propose a four-point plan that we believe iGEM as an organization can use to help these under-represented groups, centered around (1) inclusive language, (2) critical engagement with inclusive communication, (3) raising awareness of representation, (4) hosting workshops around diversity, equity, and inclusion
Reflection: The purpose of our survey and diversity report was to increase dialogue and bring greater awareness to issues regarding inclusivity in synthetic biology. The survey assessed members’ personal iGEM experiences and attempted to gain further understanding into how mentors, peers, and resources anticipated and addressed diverse backgrounds and individual identities. Questions were designed and answers were analyzed using the Ward-Gale framework for inclusivity in higher education, which was designed by researchers at the University of Birmingham. This model highlights the importance of inclusive role models, language, and curriculum/content in promoting a safe and welcoming environment for all genders and sexual identities. We were able to identify key differences between genders in terms of personal motivations and experiences; though statistically significant results were not present between different sexual orientations, general response differences showed that those identifying as heterosexual felt more comfortable in their respective iGEM environments than those identifying as a part of the LGBTQ community.
A larger sample size of LGBTQ-identifying folk would improve the study results; though responses from the LGBTQ community are hard to obtain due to lack of representation in general, a larger population would help generate a better idea of what kind of climate of inclusivity iGEM perpetuates. It is important to know if synthetic biology, being a relatively new field of study, is similar or different to other STEM disciplines in terms of their lack of diversity and representation of minorities. Future studies could also focus more closely on language and its effect on personal experience regarding inclusivity within iGEM and synthetic biology: the Trump administration’s 2017 ban on certain words within CDC documents is one blatant example of where identities are stigmatized by restricting language, language being arguably the most fundamental part of communication and open dialogue. By looking more into microaggressions and more subtle forms of discrimination through language, we can better gauge how to foster diversity, equity and inclusion within iGEM.
Attached is the report.
Activity 5: Addressing a gap in entrepreneurial literacy
People: Although synthetic biology as a discipline is research-focused and iGEM is, at its core, a research competition, our team felt that a well-balanced team will include individuals with a business focus, and that it would be helpful for individuals to have a well-rounded approach to their time during iGEM. Although our team relied on a system of generalists and specialists, we also analyzed past projects that attempted entrepreneurship and felt the need to provide foundational knowledge.
Design and Dialogue: Although several members of our team were fortunate to have a background in entrepreneurial activities, we recognized that not all teams would have such individuals. To get a baseline understanding of what past teams had accomplished, we cataloged all the projects from 2015-2017 since iGEM made Entrepreneurship a special prize. This database analyzed teams across 6 axes within their Entrepreneurship portion of their wiki:
Performing a SWOT analysis
Implementation of a Business Model Canvas
Filing of provisional patent
Interactions with VC
Demonstration of MVP, minimum viable product
Winners of the Special Award
Following the compilation of our database, we talked to experts at two on-campus incubators, including the Basement and BLUE LINC. The Basement specializes in helping commercialize undergraduates’ work and providing mentoring; talking to Ms. Christine Liou at the Basement made us realize that for teams in synthetic biology, there was an additional layer of knowledge that we needed to expose. We learned about the basic concepts of ideation and market validation. We also turned to BLUE LINC, a unique on-campus biomedical project incubator that is modeled after the Stanford BioDesign process and is open to graduate students. Talking to the president, Nick Forsch, helped us identify key factors that teams should be cognizant of when structuring their value proposition and subsequent business model paradigm.
We also noticed that both the Basement and BLUE LINC mentioned the importance of intellectual property protections. To get further details, we talked to Parth Majmudar at the UCSD Office of Innovation and Commercialization and he helped us understand the nuances of filing for a patent application and how to safeguard our research and innovation when presenting to the outside world.
In order to communicate what we learned, we kept notes from our meetings with these resources, and also used the 24 Steps to Disciplined Entrepreneurship as outlined by Bill Aulet to come up with a guide about how to bridge the gap between the innovation in synthetic biology and the resulting entrepreneurial knowledge and ecosystem.
Reflection: Because some of our team members were extremely invested in the entrepreneurial angle of science and synthetic biology, it was an exciting opportunity for interdisciplinary learning. Although some members were involved with CS-based ventures, looking at all these methodologies such as 24 Steps and Stanford Biodesign (BLUE LINC) allowed us to understand some of the additional challenges inherently present for the synthetic biology community. For those of us who were less exposed to entrepreneurship, it was an eye-opening experience to learn about this seemingly alternate side of the equation about how to deploy our newly developed technology int he real world. Scientists are often poor communicators for non-technical information, but it is this approach that is essential for successful implementation.
Activity 6: High School Presentations and Synthetic Biology Workshops
People: As students ourselves, we understand how we felt coming out of high school wishing had more knowledge of the vast array of options that there are in STEM. Many students have only been exposed to a fraction of STEM fields at best, and still most likely have not witnessed real-world applications within these fields. We discussed how we could best use our iGEM project to teach students about synthetic biology in the present as well as its future. While we believed that these presentations were useful to students, we also wanted to do something that would continue to impact students in our community beyond this summer. We spoke with members of Tritons for Sally Ride Science and saw that their goal of getting young students excited and involved in science participation and education aligned with our vision and decided to design a workshop for their use.
Design and Dialogue: We designed our presentations at Torrey Pines High School to really engage the students in a discussion about what synthetic biology is and how we have used it in our iGEM project. In each classroom, we got to speak with the students about our project, interests, and own educational experiences. The students were very receptive and eager to learn more about biotechnology and the growing industries of synthetic biology. By sharing information about the large and rapidly advancing biotech industry right here in La Jolla, we saw the students start to ask how they could get involved as they began to see how viable that possibility really is. For the high school presentations and Sally Ride Science workshops alike, educating younger students that fields in STEM that are available and can provide promising career paths was a major goal of ours. The workshop we developed introduces students to the basics of DNA technologies, synthetic biology, and 3D printing. The workshop is three hours long, very dynamic, engages the students in hands on activities, and achieves the goals of Sally Ride Science and UCSD iGEM all at the same time. We were able to include a hands-on experimentation with 3D printing into the workshop as well as include DNA modeling kits to aid students in active learning and to help future participants in Sally Ride to best lead this workshop.
Reflection: After discussing amongst ourselves the best ways in which we could get out into our community, both now and in the future, to teach younger students about STEM and give them exposure to synthetic biology, we decided to implement our own work into presentations and reach out to other organizations that could help us carry out this idea. Presenting at Torrey Pines high school was more rewarding and successful than we had anticipated. We saw how we were able to use our own work in developing a product this summer that could improve healthcare using synthetic biology, and our own enthusiasm for the project, to get the high school students asking their own questions and wondering how they could get involved. Lastly, being able to continue influencing a wider demographic through our middle school and high school workshop with Tritons for Sally Ride Science fulfilled our goals for STEM education and engagement on a long-term scale.
Here is a picture from our talk with the Intro to Biotechnology class at Torrey Pines High School. It was wonderful to see the enthusiasm and curiosity that all the students had.
In addition, here is a copy of our workshop document for teams that may be interested in replicating.
Activity 7: Hackerspace Proposal
People: Several members of our team were part of the SynBio club at UC San Diego. They felt that iGEM was only open to a few due to budgetary constraints, and this was hurting the overall interest for synthetic biology research at our school despite being home to significant researchers such as Dr. Jeff Hasty and Dr. Trey Ideker. Thus, we wanted to implement a long - term vision for sustainable synthetic biology research for interested undergraduate and graduate students.
Design and Dialogue: After speaking with several faculty members in the Bioengineering Department, a major donor for our project, as well as the officers for the Synthetic Biology Club, we saw a demonstrated, unmet need for an accessible space for students and members of the community involved in synthetic biology and learn about research. A large number of students in the Biology and Bioengineering Department echoed the idea that it is increasingly challenging to find lab space in which students can explore their own research interests. There are many clubs and organizations in the greater San Diego area that could utilize a space to host workshops and teach students about synthetic biology.
Thus, we decided to come up with a “wetlab incubator” space where students can design experiments, get departmental approval, and conduct research under the watch of a graduate student or post-doc. To help inform our vision, we spoke with Pengfei Gu, a member of the San Diego DIYBio community, about key points of concern, and the EH&S officer at our school. Based on their feedback, we have suggested the following proposal and are currently gathering student and faculty support before submitting our idea to the Chancellor’s Office.
Reflection: The idea for a Hackerspace came about naturally and intuitively as our team discussed activities for public engagement. There was an obvious need for a creative and accessible space within the synthetic biology community at UCSD and we knew this was something that our campus was ready to embrace. The next step was talking to members of the DIY Biology community and reaching out to resources on campus. At a meetup with biotech industry professionals and UCSD Bioengineering undergraduates, we got the opportunity to speak to Iman Famili of Sinopia Biosciences who gave us very positive feedback on our idea and agreed that this would be of use to the growing synthetic biology community in San Diego. We are fortunate to live in a hub of interest for life sciences, and with that the positive initiatives to support learning in the sciences. For example, we drew inspiration from the La Jolla Public Library Bio Lab and our mayor who was a major proponent of this project, as well as SD Wet Lab member Derek Schaeffer who hosts bioinformatic workshops every month at UCSD. With this growing interest in diy bio and at home labs, we sought to follow this approach on a larger scale. We have spoken to many members in the community and gotten feedback on how to make this a feasible goal. We have set in place the necessary plans to create an open and sustainably funded Hackerspace. We believe this idea fulfilled our goals of being inclusive, validated by bilateral communication within the community, and would leave a lasting impact as a result of the work done by this year’s iGEM team.
Here is a copy of our hackerspace proposal.
Activity 8: Global Empowerment Summit
Global Empowerment Summit
People: This particular activity actually spun out of our Integrated Human Practices. After realizing the vast potential of our liquid biopsy test and its impact as a tool in social innovation, we were invited to present our vision for improving cancer diagnostics at the Global Empowerment Summit at UC San Diego. We were able to impact a demographic that we hadn’t even considered: namely social innovators and entrepreneurs.
Design and Dialogue: After talking to Ms. Naila Chowdhury, it became apparent that our project had potential to make a positive difference for at-risk populations with limited access to medical care, and therefore was of significant interest to social entrepreneurs. We also realized that although these individuals had a reason to be interested in our project (and in synthetic biology as a whole), they also had an extremely diverse set of knowledge bases that did not necessarily overlap with the basic science behind our project. In preparing for the Global Empowerment Summit, we learned that many of the guest lecturers and attendees had significant education and experience in business, communications, and management; very few had much exposure to biology beyond college, and none would be fully apprised of the recent developments in synthetic biology.
In preparation for the summit, we kept our audience in mind. We knew that it was important to explain our project step-by-step, to use frequent comparisons to real-world products, and to tie each step back to the element of our project that was of the most interest; its potential for social good. We designed a poster and slideshow presentation that was accurate but simplified to this end. Unlike our other projects for EPE, we were targeting an older audience, and therefore kept in mind to explain our project at the level of most basic biological elements; well-known and easily recognizable terms like “DNA”, “genetic code”, and “proteins” were used to slowly explain the higher-level concepts such as “hypermethylation” and “biomarkers”. At the summit, we were able to communicate our vision for how synthetic biology can solve everyday problems and how we were using synthetic biology to improve diagnostics with over 300 people.
Reflection: We learned in this process that the most effective way to engage this population was almost exclusively through one-on-one dialogue with interested individuals. Though our poster and slideshow generated some interest, our best conversations and interactions came when the people we talked to had our individual attention, and had time to ask pertinent questions and become acquainted with our project at their own pace. This was also the most effective space in which to communicate the real world impact that we hope our product could have. It was far easier to relate our project science with our project goals verbally. In light of this, we focused more on one-on-one interactions when we had other opportunities to present to highly-educated non-experts.