Team:St Andrews/Public Engagement

Public engagement


The team planned and executed the beginning of a project called Microbiome of Scotland, which involves a series of activities for primary school children focusing on the attributes of bacteria, what DNA is, and the living world of microbes around us.

At the beginning of this lesson, the students collect soil samples from around their schools, which are then returned to the university for metagenomic sequencing to determine the microbiome of those particular sites. These profiles are then going to go on an interactive map of Scotland, where users can click on locations to see what the content of the microbiome is there and how it differs from other parts of the country.

Each lesson culminates in an activity during which the children visualize the DNA from polyploid fruit, including strawberries, bananas, kiwis, and mangos, using a buffer, a detergent, and ethanol.

Group of students at Thornton primary school collecting soil samples


Choosing our project

Through our outreach project we wanted to introduce more primary school age children to synthetic biology in hopes of encouraging them to be more interested in science when they go into secondary school. Additionally, we wanted to create a project that future iGEM teams could develop and grow as well as one that could have a lasting impact. Lastly, we wanted to ensure that the project produced something tangible so that the students could see that no matter their age their work can have an impact.

Meeting with Dr Margaret Ritchie

During the planning stage of the project the team met up with Dr Margaret Ritchie, who aids in producing the Scottish science curriculum in order to ensure that the project we were planning would be one that would give values to the students and teachers.

Margaret advised us on resources we could draw from, the target age group for the project and brought to light some of the challenges we might have. One of these was the limited facilities at some of the schools. She also brought up the point that some schools in more remote regions of Scotland can be difficult to reach. Margaret also suggested that this project would be a good opportunity for trainee teachers to get more experience in teaching science.

Addressing possible issues

  • Limited facilities – we ensured that the practical components of the lessons used equipment that was easy to get hold of. For example we used plastic cups in place of beakers, wooden spoons for collecting soil samples and coffee filters in place of filter paper and a funnel.
  • Availability of the programme – we produced a series of resources that teachers could use to deliver the classes themselves so that the programme was available to all interested schools.


We decided to implement a pilot study for the project, which we conducted in August and September. During the pilot study the team delivered the lesson to 3 classes (P5,P6 and P7) at Greyfriars Primary School and a P7 class at Thorntons Primary School. Delivering the sessions to a range of age groups gave us a good guide to how long the lessons should be and how we can adapt them to suit different ages.

Producing the resources

While producing the resources for the project we frequently referred to the Scottish Primary Science curriculum , to ensure that our project related to what the students were learning in class. We also conducted a series of trial experiments to find out what volumes and concentrations should be used and which fruits and berries work best for DNA extraction. We decided to use strawberries, apricot, banana, mango and kiwi.

Conducting the DNA extraction using various volumes and concentration


During the sessions we delivered a presentation to the class, encouraging them to draw on the information they already knew about bacteria and building on this.

The students then had the opportunity to decide as a class on areas where they wanted to collect samples, while being encouraged to think about practicality and potential diversity of the samples. Following this the team explained to the students what they will do with the samples at the university: the extraction of DNA from the microorganisms and the sequencing of the DNA.

The team then encouraged the students to think about why that process may be difficult and why it wasn’t practical to do it in the classroom. Students were encouraged to think about time constraints, resources and the technical skills required, all of which are aspect that need to be considered by research teams. Following this, the students participated in an analogous activity to give them a more visual explanation of the process. During this activity the students extracted DNA from a selection of fruits. The team demonstrated the appropriate techniques while also encouraging the students to think about the roles of each of the steps. After the practical the students discussed the difficulties they faced and possible steps they could take next time to ensure their results are even better.

Some of the DNA extraction (from mango, apricot and strawberry respectively) conducted by students from Greyfrairs Primary School

The students then completed the ‘sequencing’ activity below. During the activity, students interpreted sections of the sequences for the fruits from which they extracted DNA.