Education and Public Engagement: Introduction
Our team took the educational aspect of science and of the iGEM competition very seriously: we developed both digital and analog strategies for scientific training. We tested these strategies while training team members with limited scientific experience for the work on our project, but we envisage these strategies to be important in educating the actual users of our diagnostic tool in the future as well as to enable anyone to use our technologies for further innovation.
In the months since the start of the project, we furthermore actively shaped the public perception of neglected tropical diseases in our region – we organized a conference with 100 participants and 30 presenters, took part in a Science Slam, organized a workshop at the European Students Conference and taught families and children about these diseases at local science fairs.
Teaching Science: How to train newbies for lab work
Considering the aim of our project – developing a solution to a problem occurring mostly in other countries – it is especially important to think about education. In this context, we focused on two questions:
- How can we ensure that those using our test in the field will be able to do so adequately?
- How can we enable anyone affected by or interested in neglected tropical diseases to develop our project further, even finding other innovative diagnostics based on our methods?
But also directly at our doorstep, the relevance of education became clear - many of our team members were relatively new to working in a wet lab, raising another question:
- 3. How can training for laboratory work take place in an efficient and standardized way?
In many cases, this question can be answered by dissecting the pipeline into small, standardized tasks, and only slowly increasing individual responsibilities. In our wet lab work, we relied on this approach of starting with small steps, until those are so well internalized that even large tasks can be performed. We successfully introduced more than 12 team members to basic practices of molecular biology. However, these techniques rely on the presence and continuous advice of a supervisor, and can thus not be scaled to large and global projects.
Another approach responding to all three abovementioned questions is the use of Augmented Reality technology. By combining classic tutorials and step-by-step protocols with an augmented reality approach, teaching can be standardized, efficient and possible even across long distances between teacher and pupil. We thus set a goal to develop a “Lab of the Future” in which education takes place in a virtually enriched environment. In a first step, we built a first prototype using Microsoft HoloLens:
However, the HoloLens device is expensive, which was why we decided to participate in the KickStarter by ZapBox and were one of the first people to receive a Mixed Reality device at a price of only 25 US$. Despite teaming up with developers from ZapBox, we were unable to adapt ZapBox for our training, due to limitations of the current ZapBox software. Due to this difficulties, we resumed working with the HoloLens device and we have successfully taught the “PCR CleanUp” method to a 18 year old school kid.
Raising awareness: How to unite specialists and citizens against Neglected Tropical Diseases
The challenge of Neglected Tropical Disease (NTDs), often also called poverty-associated infectious diseases, is not only taken on by biologists and physicians - politicians, health workers and NGOs as well as the private sector have for a long time made efforts to eliminate these diseases. As with many complex problems, there is broad consensus that only collaboration of all these actors can lead to a long-term solution to the problem.
In order to support this collaborative and intersectional approach, we thus invited more than 100 participants and 30 presenters to the premises of the Humboldt Graduate School on the 17th of May 2017 for our NTD Lab. The event was split into two main parts: in an interactive “project fair”, our team presented its work to the participants next to projects of NGOs such as the Christoffel Blindenmission (CBM) or of other scientific institutes such as HTW Berlin. After a reception, a panel discussion with eminent speakers ensued. We were happy to welcome Dr. Georg Kippels (member of the parliament), Prof. Dr. KH Martin Kollmann (member of the advisory board of DNTDs and scientific advisor to the CBM Kenya), Dr. Joachim Klein (German Ministry for Research and Education), Dr. Maria-Luisa Rodriguez (Global Program Head Nifurtimox, Bayer AG) as well as our team leader Henrik on the podium. In an insightful discussion, we were discussing not only the scientific requirements for tackling the problem of NTDs but even how science might be a driving force in reaching the sustainable development goals.
While a symposium like the NTD Lab will raise interest among scholars and students, we aimed to reach out further to any interested citizen. We thus took part in events designed to help communicate scientific discoveries to families and children, such as the Long Night of the Sciences, and also presented our project at a popular Berlin Science Slam in front of an audience of 500 people. All these efforts are reported in larger detail in the Human Practices section. Our efforts in public engagement did not go unnoticed – we were featured in regional newspapers such as the Berliner Morgenpost as well as in the campus radio program. We hope to continue our work towards a broader public awareness of the challenge of NTDs.