Public Engagement and Education
“Synthetic Biology” can sound daunting to even the bravest of academics. We want to change that. Removing the stigma around science might not be accomplished in one iGEM season, or by just one iGEM team, but we know we made a difference this year. We taught high schoolers about bioengineering and helped them gain confidence in their ability. We played with younger kids to inspire them to pursue science. We threw a party to tell the community all about iGEM and what biology can do. We made an app that will introduce people to plasmids wherever they are. Most of all, we told everyone we met how much is possible thanks to synthetic biology.
Click the dropdowns to read more, and check out the resources we made below!
Crime Scene Gel Worksheet DNA Necklaces Camp Slides 1 Camp Slides 2 Camp Slides 3
At the end of July we helped RAIN Incubatorlaunch a week long summer camp that introduced incoming ninth and tenth graders to the world of synthetic biology. The campers were local public school students with little to no experience in science. We designed nine experiments for them to run. The first half of the week was spent running agarose gels, learning how to identify cells under a microscope, extracting their own DNA, and creating art in 96 well plates with Bradford Reagent and BSA. The second half of the week we got into more advanced biology. They ran endpoint PCR and learned how to use agarose gels to analyze their results, then split into groups to grow bacteria cultures. We used the BioBuilder kit, Eau That Smell, based on the 2006 MIT iGEM team’s project. For the purpose of the camp, we created a new protocol that showed the students how adding isoamyl alcohol to their cultures affects the growth. They learned that while adding isoamyl alcohol will make the culture smell like bananas, adding too much will, as one camper put it, “make the bacteria smell like feet”.
The feedback from the campers was incredible. They all took short tests, to assess their understanding of biology, before and after the camp. Scores from the first test, taken at the beginning of the camp, averaged 57.7% with a standard deviation of 22.7%. Scores from the second test, taken at the end of the camp, averaged 93.4% with a standard deviation of 7.3%. This shows that every camper learned the concepts presented throughout the week, regardless of their background knowledge. Many of the students began the week with no interest in science, and very little confidence in their ability. We are so proud to say that every student left the camp feeling excited about science, and feeling like they could have a future in biology.
“While excited to try [the camp], I wasn’t really sure if it was going to be something I’d be interested in. But from the first day I came here the lab work we’ve been doing and the stuff we’ve been working on has been something that sparks that interest for science. The mentors and peers here have been unbelievably nice and helpful and I would recommend this camp to anyone interested in science, biology, or engineering.”
-- Chista Lackey, 15, Lincoln High School
“At first I was a little hesitant and scared coming here because of the title ‘bioengineering.’ I thought no way could I ever do that I don’t even know what a cell membrane is. RAIN proved me wrong. I was able to understand what we were taught.”
-- Alice Wagar, 14, SAMI
“I have learned so much over this week that I had no idea about. I found the lab about PCR screening fascinating. The fact that we can essentially reproduce DNA at mass quantities with just some chemicals and a thermocycler is just so amazing. Normally biologist learn about this in college but the fact that I got this opportunity so early really made me inspired.”
-- Madison Auble, 15, Stadium High School
“Now, a week ago, if you were to ask me the question, ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ I would have panicked and said computer programmer... But I have a question to ask back-- ‘how can I choose when I don’t know what I’m choosing?’ I might say I want to be an astronaut, but do I know what that really entails? So I want to thank everyone that was a part of making this camp possible. Getting to see what bioengineering really is and what it means to be a bioengineer has been an incredibly valuable experience… I hope that this program can continue on in the future so that more students can experience this amazing opportunity.”
--Kendall Dawson, 14, SAMI
In an effort to get younger generations interested in science, we visited the third grade classes of Sherman Elementary School. Sherman Elementary is a Tacoma public school that practices project based learning. We designed an activity to teach students about DNA and how base pairing works. We started by talking about the DNA in their bodies, as their current unit was on the human body. By making a connection to something they had learned about in class, the students were able to better understand how we used DNA to make an arsenic test. The sessions were closed with a discussion about arsenic, and the potential dangers of having arsenic in their soil. The students were all very excited to hear about our lab work, especially when we talked about growing bacteria!
Sue’s Tech Kitchen, the creation of Randi Zuckerberg, is a nationwide event dedicated to getting people excited about science through food. It’s known for its’ 3D printed smores and miracle berries, but it also serves as an opportunity for local groups to share their projects and visions with the community. We held a booth at the event in Tacoma, and had a blast telling our community all about our project. We created a mockup of our project with pH strips to represent the sensor, and solutions of a known acidity to represent water samples from around Puget Sound. Kids loved the idea of putting what looked like paper, into what looked like water, and seeing the paper change colors before their eyes. Adults were more excited about the idea of getting to test their own water and get accurate results that were easy to read. On a whiteboard, we set up a magnetic puzzle of our plasmid parts. Guests got to put together the puzzle as fast as they could, and the best time of each day won a cool water bottle. We met some incredible people, including a woman who helped create the map of arsenic contamination caused by the smelter. We had many people ask to buy test strips, but since the sensor isn’t complete, they settled for signing up for the email list. The event gave us great insight on what matters to the community, and we even got ideas on how to expand the sensor in the future!
To kick off the iGEM season, and raise some money for jamboree, we held a team launch party. For the fundraising, members of our team collected, and in some cases created, items to be auctioned off at the party. We ended up with a beautiful auction, consisting of a serene hillside painting by Brendan Studebaker, one of our instructors, an amazing drawing on a papercut backdrop by Heidi Xu, a team member, and a stunning framed photo taken by Ian Gutierrez, a team member. During the event we spoke to guests about what our project was, and received input on how to make it even better. Since it was still the beginning of the season, it was the perfect time for us to talk to the community about what they wanted to see in an arsenic test.
This year, our tech savvier team members created an app to introduce our project! The goal of the app is much like the goal of our project: to make something that anyone can use. It’s a simple design that introduces the sensor in an engaging and entertaining environment. Hearing the words “synthetic biology” can be scary for some people, so it was important that our app be as accessible as possible. You play as our plasmid, out on an adventure to test samples. The goal is to get as far as possible while avoiding the towers of unknown DNA. Players can go for a personal best, or compete with their friends for the high score!
Over the course of this iGEM season, members of our team have kept the community up to date with our project, through social media! Having an active digital presence helped us to stay in touch with what iGEM teams, and team members, from around the world. We started off the year with a team blog. It had detailed weekly updates about everything we were working on, but it didn’t allow for much communication with viewers. We switched over to an Instagram, and found much better results! Reaching nearly 40 posts this year, the account kept us in close contact with almost 100 iGEM teams that we wouldn’t have met otherwise. Every week we posted a “Meet the Team Monday” to spotlight the achievements of someone on our team. For every long day spent in the lab, we made a post to remember it. While the Instagram wasn’t as informative as our blog, the connections we made through it were even stronger!
This year, the Washington iGEM team hosted an event for teams around the world. It included industry panels, practice presentations, workshops, poster sessions, a Q+A, and a public fair at Gasworks Park. Human Practices has always been important to us, so we knew we’d have to do something extra special for the fair! We came up with an activity, that was later revised and used for more events. First we collected solutions with different acidity levels. They were labeled to correspond with a Puget Sound map of arsenic contamination. Then we handed out pH strips to represent our arsenic sensor. Visitors could dip the strips into the solution, and the color of the strip would tell them how much arsenic is in water at that location. The audience varied widely in age, so the event gave us good practice in tweaking our presentations on the spot. We had a great time at the meetup, and got great responses at the fair! Thank you Washington iGEM for hosting such a fun event!
This July, members of our team were able to present at a nearby branch of Rotary International. Rotary is a global organization dedicated to promoting peace, growing local economies, fighting disease, providing clean water, saving mothers and children, and supporting education. As local residents, the members had experienced the difficulties in testing their soil firsthand. We spoke about the potentials of synthetic biology, and the potential of our sensor. They seemed excited about just using a test strip for arsenic, and even more excited about what synthetic biology could do.