Education and Public Engagement
The Exeter iGEM team firmly believe that education and public engagement should not be overlooked. Making the sciences more accessible to the public is important if we are to promote responsible research and inspire the next generation of scientists, as well as increase awareness for important topics. As such, we have devoted a lot of time to engaging with the public and creating a dialogue directly through the creation of an app as well as giving multiple lectures and talks on our project and the importance of responsible research. Speaking with academics after presenting at Exeter University's CLES-CON, and with other teams while representing at a UK iGEM meet-up allowed for more in depth discussion of these issues.
We wanted to convey the principles of our project to the general public in a fun, visual and interactive way. Given that a high proportion of our team members have programming experience, we decided that the most natural and time efficient way of implementing this would be in the form of an app. The app is a game where the player experiences life as one of our modified bacteria; collecting ions from the water in order to gain points. If you are interested in playing this game for yourself, it can be found on the Play Store from this link: Pili+
The primary purpose of this app is to aid in explaining and visualising our project. In addition to this, the app also serves to educate and inspire people on the topic of synthetic biology. This is achieved through the use of “fun facts” which pop up on the screen whenever the player starts the game.
Evolution and Feedback
The app has changed significantly since it started development, being influenced heavily by feedback from within the team, academics outside the team, and members of the general public. Initially the app was intended simply as a device for increasing awareness and understanding of our project, but after some discussion it became apparent that it could be a good opportunity to promote synthetic biology in general. In response to this, an interesting biology or genetics fact pops up every time the game is played. In this way the player is constantly exposed to synthetic biology in easily digestible chunks which may inspire them to study the area further. In the early stages of development the app was reasonably confusing to play for the first time and left some ambiguities about the point of our project. An easy way to fix this was with the introduction of an interactive tutorial. Now it is much more accessible to new players and is far more meaningful in explaining our project. Some people who had been playing the game since its initial release on the store eventually came to find the game too easy. As such, we decided to add a game mechanic whereby the player not only had to catch ions out of the water, but also had to catch nutrient molecules in order to avoid starvation. This simple tweak made the game much harder and more intense, keeping experienced players interested.
One of the best opportunities for feedback we had was during the University of Exeter open day on September 2nd. As part of the public outreach for this project, three team members represented iGEM at the open day. It was not only a great chance to talk to prospective students and their families about the opportunities offered by the university, but also to talk about our project and intentions. Primed in the teaching lab with a few demonstrations of our filtration system we received lots questions, feedback and encouragement. Firstly, we explained a bit about the iGEM competition as many of the people approaching us were unfamiliar with it. We then proceeded to explain the project and the inspiration behind it. After answering their questions we asked them if they were willing to try our app. Intrigued, everyone one asked said yes. The feedback we received was very consistent, with the general consensus being that it positively helped to visualise our project and that it was very enjoyable; with many people commenting on the cute concept and good music. However, we also took on board some constructive criticism at the same time. The graphics seemed quite underwhelming, there were a handful of technical difficulties and – partially due to the nutrient mechanic mentioned previously- the game was quite difficult to play for beginners. With this feedback in mind, we made a concentrated effort to reflect and act on the improvements they suggested. Firstly, we consulted an illustrator and commissioned some new graphics to improve the look of the game. The technical difficulties were fixed and the game was split into two separate modes. The starvation mechanic mentioned earlier was moved into what became the hard mode, while it was removed in the normal mode. This allowed for the game to not only be easily accessible, but also continue to challenge more experienced players.
The final form of this app is a simple idea which has been executed well. An interesting and enjoyable game which serves the purpose of educating and engaging with the public. Friends compete to beat each other’s scores, playing over and over and picking up more fun facts along the way. In this way the app has succeeded its purpose of bringing the core principles of our project, and those of synthetic biology, to the people in an easily digestible format. At time of writing, this game is an international success- with 14% of the players registered in continental Europe.
During the course of our project, we found comprehension of ideas behind responsible research and innovation (integrated human practices) as one of the most challenging areas, as we are a team composed of natural scientists, and so have not had these ideas from social science introduced to us. We also found, from our discussions with Dr Sarah Hartley, that there the social scientists she lectures, from the University of Exeter's Business School, have a lack of understanding of the natural sciences. It is important for them to develop this understanding as these are the people that scientists will be working with to create responsible research in the future. After discovering there is a large barrier created by a lack of multidisciplinary study in an undergraduate program between the social sciences and the natural sciences; we decided that we wanted to begin to bridge this gap.
We thus decided, to deliver a series of presentations which discussed the importance of the ideas in social science that are required in scientific research, mainly responsible research and innovation (RRI) and the AREA framework, which allowed us to use public engagement to express the importance of integrated human practices in scientific research. These presentations were delivered to a range of students from different disciplines to start to break down this barrier. We targeted students from undergraduate degrees in the natural sciences and the social sciences, and also students in an earlier stage of their education, currently doing their A-levels.
The presentation we developed can be viewed in the pdf version below and can be downloaded as a powerpoint presentation using this link.
The presentations were tailored to their audience to ensure the content is appropriate. In the natural sciences we presented to ‘BIO2071 - Research Skills and Bioethics’, a second year module taken by all second year Bioscience students at the University of Exeter. As these students are mainly from the Biosciences they had no prior knowledge on RRI. In this presentation we focused on what responsible research and innovation is and how it was integrated into our project.
We also presented to students from the Exeter Mathematics School. These students were of a strong mathematical background and had an interest in a career in research due to their attendance but did not have the biological knowledge that the biosciences students had, so we avoided the details of the biological work we have conducted. Similarly to the Bioscience students, they did not have prior knowledge in RRI.
Finally, we will present to social scientists from ‘BEM3009 – Ethics and Organisations’, a third year module taken by third year students in the University of Exeter’s Business School. This will take place after the Jamboree, but we are still dedicated to delivering this presentation. These students will have a very limited scientific background, so we will describe our project in basic terms. As well as scaling back the science we will attempt to connect with business students. These students will, in the future, be the ones to take our scientific research and move it into society. We will engage the students by asking what they would do with our technology, and what their ideas are on the next stage, as these are some of the future stakeholders. With this, we hope that our understanding of the business context will improve.
In order to gage the impact the presentation made in the first two presentations we delivered, a feedback form was given to each member of the audience. Initially we asked ‘What do you think responsible research and innovation means?’. Posing this question at the start of the presentation allowed us to have an idea of the knowledge that the audience had prior to the event. Following this question up we asked ‘How have your thoughts on responsible research and innovation changed after this presentation?’. By judging the difference in response before and after, we could gage how useful our presentation was as an educational tool in the importance of RRI. Further questions we posed were ‘How useful did you find this talk?’ and ‘Do you think responsible research should be incorporated into the education system in some way?’, which offered multiple choice answers.
Exeter Mathematics School
On Tuesday 17th October 2017 Anna, Jake, Laura and Rachel delivered the first of a series of presentations on responsible research and innovation to the Exeter Mathematics School.
This presentation was delivered in front of a full audience, of approximately 20 sixth form students. The feedback showed that the majority of the audience found it useful (95%) and that 90% believe RRI should be included in the education system. Prior to the presentation, the majority of the students said that RRI was related to scientific integrity and preventing the environmental impacts in research and making innovation that is sustainable. This shows there is a basic understanding of what RRI is, but there is confusion with regards to how it differs from ethics, and the flexible process it is. This suggests there is a lack of exposure of this topic up to the sixth form level. However, although 90% suggesting RRI should be included in the education system, it often came with the proviso that it should be introduced at university level due to the complexity and the material being less relevant to students not seeking a career in science. Since the students already have an understanding of ethics in science, this is a good platform for students to learn about RRI at university.
At the end of our presentation we opened the floor up for questions and received a number of thought provoking responses. One member of the audience asked a series of questions relating to 'if we felt RRI was more appropriate for research that produces a product instead of research for the sake of science'. To this we said that responsible science should always be at the forefront of any researchers mind. However there is a significant difference between applied research and curiosity lead science. Although it is ultimately the decision of the research about when is best to employ the framework we believed that RRI becomes increasingly more important when the innovation is introduced into society.
University of Exeter - Biosciences
On Monday 23rd October 2017 Anna, Jake, Laura and Rachel delivered the second of a series of presentations on responsible research and innovation, this time to second year Biosciences students at the University of Exeter.
This presentation was presented to an audience of approximately 25 second year bioscience undergraduates. The feedback found that 92% found the presentation useful or better, with the remaining 8% showing indifference, however 100% believed that RRI should be included in the education system. The audience showed a similar belief in what RRI means to the previous presentation at the Mathematics School, with the majority mentioning ethics and environmental sustainability. This shows the students have not been educated further on the topic of science and society with more complex ideas such as RRI. As 100% believe RRI should be taught it suggests that students are at a stage where they are ready to learn about it, supporting the conclusions from the Exeter Mathematics School.
On 17th August four of our team members (Karolina, Rachel, Sean and Laura) made the trip to London to participate in the iGEM UK Meet-up 2017 hosted by the Westminster, UCL and Warwick iGEM teams. It was a great opportunity to meet and discuss the progress of our respective projects with other UK teams. The Friday, organised by Westminster University, consisted of two lectures. The first covered the topics of Orthogonality, Risk, Bio-containment whilst the second was based on Bacterial Micro-Compartments. The lectures were then followed by poster presentation in the afternoon. UCL organised a series of Synthetic Biology debates for Saturday morning, the debating topics included: Should Biology and AI technology be merged ? And should humans have the right to create synthetic life on other planets? After lunch we departed for the Shard, as organised by Warwick, to give our presentations. When creating our presentation we had decided early on to be very up-front about the progression of our project and in-particular highlight any problems we were still yet to solve. By taking this approach we received lots of constructive comments and suggestions about possible solutions and difficulties which we had not yet identified.
- From Oxford: Are pili functional when the bacteria are dead?
- From Nottingham: Do our proteins fold at low pH?
- UCL: What is the bond strength between the pili and the metal ions?
During the presentation we asked for other teams to test our app (which was, at that point, in its alpha stage) and convey their feedback on what could be improved. Kent iGEM told us that although they had enjoyed the app, they had difficulty finding it in the google play store. As a result we have renamed the app so that it is easier to locate. After the weekend a member of the Oxford team got in touch to suggest that one possible method to reduce escape frequency of GMO's out of the metal binding reactor is to dis-able the flagella on the our bacteria thus limiting their mobility.Secondly a member of the Nottingham team approached us to suggest we use a piece of software called CABS-flex to model how our protein fold at different pHs.
During the early stages of our project when we were generating our initial ideas in which to base our project on we were also given the opportunity to present what we felt were are most promising project proposals at the Exeter University College of Life and Environmental Sciences conference (CLES-Con). At the end of our presentation there was time given for a Q&A with the audience, comprised of both academic staff and PhD students from a range of disciplines. This helped us to both gage the audience’s response to our ideas and allow them to express any concerns with the proposed projects. Additionally this was an opportunity for us to network postgraduate students and academics at our university and raise the profile of iGEM throughout the University's departments . Most significantly CLES-Con enabled us to develop relationships with those attending the conference which has proved to be very beneficial during the course of our project.
As a team we are very proud of the work we have accomplished over the last few months. Additionally, we feel like the work we have conducted seeks to solve an important local problem, one which we would like to raise the profile of in our local community. As a result we have organised a Café Scientific for February 2018. This will be a great opportunity to show case our work, create awareness about mine water pollutants, generate some interest in the iGEM competition and introduce more people to synthetic biology. Click here to see the upcoming events at Exeter Café Scientifique.
We are continuing our work to bridge the gap between the social and natural science by delivering a presentation about responsible research and innovation by presenting to social scientists from ‘BEM3009 – Ethics and Organisations’, a third year module taken by third year students in the University of Exeter’s Business School. This final presentation completes our series of presentations, where we have engaged with natural and social science undergraduate students as well as students from a college level. We would not like to limit ourselves to this and would like to further spread the importance of responsible research and innovation, targeting students and academics from other areas of the natural sciences.