The iGEM team engaged with the local Worcester community in two outreach events. This past summer, we interacted with the public at the campus-wide TouchTomorrow event, where people visited labs on campus, and high school students at workshops we held. Our main objectives were to inform people of synthetic biology and its impacts with hands-on activities.
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Every summer, WPI holds this social outreach event where over 5000 people of all ages come to our campus to participate in activities organized by faculty and students. In one of the biology labs where we conducted experiments, we set up various exhibits and activities for visitors to understand the characteristics of the bacteria we used in our experiments.
In our most popular activity, we had visitors extract DNA from strawberries with household products. Utilizing a simple detergent solution of dish soap and salt, kids were able to gather DNA from lysed cells in the strawberries. After extracting their prize, they could show off their handiwork in an Eppendorf tube necklace.
When done extracting strawberry DNA, visitors had the opportunity to view fluorescent bacterial art. In a darkened booth, draped so as to prevent any outside light from entering, people could use a UV lamp to make the bacteria glow. Two bacterial strains, each expressing green fluorescent protein and red fluorescent protein, were assorted into common cartoon characters like Spongebob and Gary the Snail on Petri dishes.
Another exhibit relied on people’s sense of smell. We cultured two bacterial strains to express the gene for isoamyl alcohol (i.e. banana extract) and spearmint oil in Petri dishes. A fruity aroma and minty scent were then produced to the mask the characteristic stench of bacteria.
Worcester Vocational High School
High school freshmen came to one of the biology teaching labs on campus. In two stations, students had the opportunity to extract the DNA content of E. coli bacteria and view red fluorescing or green fluorescing bacteria under a microscope.
In the DNA extraction activity, iGEM members instructed students in micropipetting technique and introduced a DNA extraction protocol. In a stepwise manner, we explained to each group the rationale and implications of each stage to make their minipreps. Besides the extraction, we explained the relationship of DNA extraction and purification to our subcloning experiments in bacteria to prevent biofilm development. To recognize each student’s work, we had asked each to write their DNA concentration on the board. DNA concentration was measured by Nanodrop, with a range of 78.1 to 889.9 ng/ μL reported by students.
To attain a detailed view of the bacteria, RFP- or GFP-expressing bacteria was spotted onto a glass microscope slide and viewed under a confocal microscope, which was connected to a camera. The camera is then linked to a monitor that allowed viewing by all of the bacteria.
Overall, the workshops sought to introduce students to the basic techniques of data collection in bacterial research in an interactive manner. As students ourselves, we wished to emulate the environment where we learned the lab skills we utilized daily. Through activities involving techniques like DNA extraction and microscopy, we wished to educate the high school students about the steps we took in our experiments in an enjoyable environment.