Team:UFlorida/Public Engagement

Community Outreach

Our team has chosen to direct our community outreach efforts toward educating the next generation. This endeavor has two main areas of focus: increasing genetically modified organism (GMO) education and encouraging young people to get involved in STEM. GMOs are becoming an increasingly discussed in the topic of scientific innovation, yet they continue to have a negative stigma. Synthetic biology holds the potential for advancement in agriculture, medicine, industry, and it can benefit the economy through all of these fields. Our goal was to spread factual information about the pros and cons of GMOs and bust the myths that many people accept to be true. We held lectures and presentations for various target audiences.

Campus Outreach

We worked to bring unbiased information about GMOs to students on the University of Florida campus through “tabling” with an information board in various locations and through school Facebook groups. Our most notable of day of tabling was at an undergraduate pre-health kickoff fair, which attracted over 900 students.

Guest Lectures

We gave several lectures on the University of Florida campus about GMOs and the potential benefits of our research.

The UF Center for Precollegiate Education and Training offers a summer research program targeted for aspiring high school students. For their talk we focused on the ubiquitous nature and controversies surrounding GMOs. In order to tie in our specific project, we added slides on fermentation and probiotics and had an adventurous taste test of different probiotic products on the market!

The largest group we presented to consisted of over 300 students in a lecture-style class called “Science for Life.” For this event team members went over the specifics of iGEM and our project. iGEM is not well known to the University of Florida despite the large focus on research. We hope through spreading the word about iGEM, we can get more students involved in the future.

Aces in Motion

Aces in Motion is a non-profit organization that teaches tennis and character development to underprivileged youth in Gainesville. For this event, team members encouraged and taught these kids to explore science and research through hands-on activities. The kids were motivated to express artistically what they imagined when they heard “bacteria.” After discussing the student’s ideas and teaching them about bacteria in our world, the kids went on to witness and explore different specimens under microscopes! To see their creativity, look at the drawings below!

5K for Chronic Illness

iGEM team members participated with the University of Florida American Physician Scientists Association in their Inaugural 5K Run to benefit Streetlight at UF Health. This event directly benefited patients at Shands Hospital living with life-limiting chronic illnesses, including various autoimmune diseases. A table was set up to talk about GMOs and influence discussion as runners got ready to exercise for a great cause. Team members were excited to support a great cause and run off all the built up energy from focusing in lab!

Popular Opinion

Through our community outreach, we came to realize that many students have not learned about the many potential uses of genetic modification. The overall impression we received from our student body was that they believed GMOs were bad but weren’t sure why. We decided to explore why a little bit further.

Our team surveyed over 150 college students to gather information about their own experiences learning about GMOs in high school. We found that the majority of curricula at the high schools of our survey participants do not go into detail about GMOs. The survey also showed that roughly ¼ of these college students “do not feel comfortable consuming foods or medical products produced using GMOs.”

The last question on the survey was left open-ended so participants could comment any thoughts they had on GMOs. Below are some responses:

“I wish I had a better understanding of how they work.”

“I’m concerned about the long-term effects.”

“I think they’re supposed to be bad, but I don’t know enough about them to understand why.”

“I wish I would be able to say something about it but I have no knowledge.”

“I think people generally misunderstand a lot about GMOs!”

“I think GMOs are safe for humans and the environment, but I’m not sure the biological patent laws are always fairly used.”

“There is not enough information about GMOs taught to the general public.”

“I wish the media wouldn’t portray GMOs as unhealthy/ dangerous.”

“I wish they were more transparent about how they are modified.”

“I prefer eating foods that are GMO-free.”

“I wish I had more credible, unbiased information about GMOs.”

Legislation Efforts

Based on what we have learned through on-campus outreach and our survey, our team believes strongly that there should be a change in how high school students are taught about GMOs. We are currently working towards making this a reality at home in the state of Florida. While we still have a long way to go, we have conversed with several individuals who have political influence at the local level and have made preliminary contact with Senator Marco Rubio, Senator Bill Nelson, and Governor Rick Scott. If our initiative proves successful, we may try to take this to the national level. It is our hope that we will continue to progress in this endeavor, and we can’t wait to hopefully make an impact on the education of future generations!

Below is an excerpt from our initial education proposal that we created several months ago:

“The purpose of this proposal is to outline an education initiative that will promote the knowledge of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and synthetic biology. This initiative will provide long-term benefits to the state of Florida by educating current students on modern scientific concepts that have implications in healthcare, agriculture, and more.

Our primary objective is to introduce synthetic biology to high school students through their standard science classes. GMOs are often accompanied by a negative connotation and are overlooked in biology curricula, yet they are becoming increasingly relevant in various fields of scientific research that are working to better our society. Through a preliminary survey of over 150 college students, we learned that the majority of high school curricula do not teach about GMOs in detail, though many of these students say they wish they had learned more. We hope that the goal to have students taught about synthetic biology will be accomplished through the use of supplemental materials and the eventual addition of material to biology textbooks.

Current Florida legislation does not specify any required content for high school biology courses. We believe that it is possible to effectively build upon the current biology curriculum by adding one lesson (approximately one hour of class time) on synthetic biology. This lesson will teach students about the positive and negative aspects of using GMOs in research and commercial production, and it will introduce them to modern, innovative research. Requiring this as a part of the public school biology curriculum will enrich the content which students are taught.

I am part of an undergraduate team at the University of Florida that is preparing to compete in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition later this year. You can learn more about iGEM here: Our entirely student-run team is using synthetic biology to increase the probiotic benefits of E. coli Nissle 1917, a clinically proven probiotic for gastrointestinal disease. Our work may result in many medicinal benefits such as decreased inflammation, decreased tumor cell proliferation, and potential therapy for inflammatory bowel disease. We began this project in August of 2017, secured our own laboratory space and funding, and have been working to spread knowledge of the benefits of synthetic biology. We have learned a great deal through our studies on the importance of genetic modification in the advancement of science, and we hope to help train the next generation of scientists with this mindset as well.

My team would be happy to work with the Florida Department of Education to create supplemental educational materials, as we believe wholeheartedly that this endeavor is worthwhile. Our team members come from a range of STEM backgrounds and are under the mentorship of notable faculty from a U.S. top ten public university. Our intensive knowledge of synthetic biology and experience in spreading this knowledge to students in our local community have prepared us to assist in this initiative.

Overall, we believe that adding a section on synthetic biology to the high school science curriculum will yield a generation of more educated students who will better our state and our country. The Florida State Board of Education’s mission statement expresses that one of their main goals is to prepare students for a “skilled workforce and economic development,” and we are confident that our proposed initiative will help the education system achieve that goal.”