Team:INSA-UPS France/Engagement

Public Engagement & Education

We wanted to show that it is possible to talk about biology, science in general and ethics with people from all ages and with different knowledges. We have articulated our pubilc engagement strategy around three actions: discover, practice and discuss, to empower citizens or future citizens about their capability of exchange and acting on science. These three milestones are essential for us to give people a better understanding of the current challenges of science in the society.


The first question to be asked to popularise biology is “how to reach people?”

In order to make synthetic biology accessible to a wider audience, we had to adapt our speeches and supports to the different people we have met. We had to built ad hoc communicative tools (workshops, interventions, conferences, card game...) to engage a young or non-scientific public in learning about different fields of biology.


One of the most important thing in science is scientific methods and experiments. In order to give a better understanding of the globality of the scientific work, we thought it was a good approach to make people do lab experiments. Moreover, practise often results in scientific and ethical questioning.


Our biggest challenge is to open up the debate about synthetic biology, by bringing forward major scientific breakthrough but also showing that there is a need to think about ethical and technical limits. We wanted to address some controversial topics with the public such as limits and potentials of synthetic biology, ethics in science, GMOs legislation…

As our project is focused on microorganisms in public health, it can be kind of scary for the general public. So we wanted for our public engagement strategy to show how microbial diversity affects our world.

Click on one of the event we took part into see how we developed it in this aim.

School Education Card Game European Researcher's Night Conference High School Lab Exposciences Exhibitions on campus Press

School Education

Card Game

European Researcher's Night


High School Lab


Exhibitions on campus


  • School Education
  • Rising curiosity
  • Questions
  • Representations
  • Analysis
  • Workshops
  • Results
  • Conclusions

School Education

We’ve been involved in schools classes, with children between the age of 7 and 11 years old in elementary schools.

The main goals of these interventions were the discovery of biology and research at school with two workshops: Microorganisms and their environment and growth of microorganisms on a Petri dish.

We tried to build a guide for future iGEMers to be inspired by our pedagogical project:

You can download it there.

Our motivation was to share our passion and knowledge about biology and to raise curiosity of the pupils about microorganisms. We were also very interested in seeing what representation children have on microorganisms, helping them improving their knowledge about microorganisms and discussing about benefits and risks of microorganisms on our health.

We worked with Mrs. Matricon, Mrs Bach and Mrs. Durand, respectively teachers at “Lakanal” and “Patte d’Oie” schools in Toulouse.

Rising curiosity

The first step was led by the teacher one week before the intervention. It was dedicated to give a meaning to further teaching, to motivate the pupils, to rise their curiosity, to induce their amazement and their desire to know.

4 types of introduction are possible (see the diagram below):

Scientific investigation approach in primary schools - Enlarge

The observation and the technical challenges were adapted to our pedagogical project. For instance, here are some scenarii to introduce microorganisms: why is it important to wash hands before eating? Why are we sick? How can we observe microorganisms?

Emergence of questionnements

The goal is to set up a transition between amazement and reflection in order to involve pupils in an investigation and research procedure. A bunch of questions results from this step, so the teacher will organise, regroup and sometimes refute them to enable the emergence of a problem or a situation. The main questions were:

A first representation of micro-organisms

The representations are the ideal way to figure out the knowledge of the pupils thanks to their experience of the real world, their social and affective life. Those representations provide the first answer given by the pupils to investigation questions.

A representation is also a structure that contributes to integrate new learning. Those structures had to be transformed so that the pupils better appropriate/benefit from the world. According to Piaget those transformations are called “accommodation” (Depover, Christian et al.: Les modèles d'enseignement et d'apprentissage).

We analysed the representations to figure out how to overcome the possible difficulties and obstacles that could occur during the session.

This work is based on the work of three classes of two schools of CE2, CM1 and CM2 (equivalent to 3th to 5th US grade) for a total amount of 72 pupils. The pupils had to draw a microbe and answer 3 questions: Where can we find microbes? What do they do? How to see them?

Visual representations

We found two main conceptions of microorganisms:

  • A representation that assimilates the microorganism to an animal.
  • A representation built from the pictures watched by the children (Barbapapa, kawaï, pokemons, cartoons, etc.) which have in common a circular or geometrical form with eyes and mouth.

It is interesting to see that some of those representations are close to microorganisms. However, a lot of pupils represent microorganisms with legs and sometimes eyes. Some pupils also drew a speech bubble to indicate that microbes are talking or thinking.

Where can we find microbes?
What is their purpose?

Conclusions about representations

Zoomorphism is an obstacle to their understanding. It was thus important to clarify the morphological differences between microorganisms and animals (including insects) and their relative size (the lice are not microbes).

The concept of hygiene to protect oneself against microorganisms is well known by the pupils. Nevertheless it was necessary to insist on the presence of microorganisms regardless of hygiene, on their roles in the body (digestion, protection), on their essential action on the environment (degradation of organic substances)  and their intervention in the production of bread, wine and dairy products (yoghurts, cheese,…).

It was important to give a precise order of magnitude concerning the microorganisms and the growing magnificence to set up on a microscope in order to observe the microorganisms. There was a need to present the Petri dishes we prepared for the session and also their use to observe the microorganisms in the environment of the pupils.

Those representations were compared to the representations built at the end of the pedagogical sequence.

Learning by doing

We expanded from the representation work and from the pupils questioning to select a statement: Where microorganisms can be found? How can we do to show their presence? We provided to the pupils a “Little laboratory report” as a workbook for investigation and to keep a written record. It also introduced them the daily life of scientists with the need to write everything down.

We started by highlighting an important point: commonly, people talk about microorganisms using the word “microbes”, which is quite vernacular; it gives a negative and restrictive image of microorganisms. As we were in science class, we needed to use the word “micro-organisms” instead of the word “microbes”.

Click on one of the workshops to know more about it!

Workshop 1: Microorganisms and their environment

Before launching the experiment, it seemed necessary to us to do a documentation workshop. The goal was to provide elements for the representation of microorganisms: the size (working with maths concept like the scale and the enlargement factor), their visual aspects and their environment.

Questions to answer:

  • How to see them?
  • Where can we find them?


  • Observation (do an observation drawing)
  • Recognize a microorganism and associate it to its environment

First, we introduced the micro-scale and zoom principle using mathematics, pictures and common objects like rulers and reams of paper.

Then, we presented some pictures of microorganisms annotated with their name and pictures of environments where microorganisms can live in (cheese, rivers, mud, yoghurt). The goal was to associate each microorganism with its corresponding environment. The pupils were very surprised to discover such a diversity and that microorganisms could be found in food or were useful to produce bread.

Finally, all pupils selected a microorganism and drew an observation drawing in the “lab report” according to the guidelines we gave them.

A black box containing bioluminescent Vibrio harveyi: show an impressive capacity of living organisms

Questions to answer:

  • How to see them?
  • Where can we find them?


  • Create and follow a scientific protocol

During the session, both empty and contaminated Petri dishes with yoghurt, fingers, leaves and river water were observed. The pupils drew an observation drawing of the boxes and also described what they saw in the box: the size, color and aspect of the microorganisms present on the Petri dish.

We explained the difference between the pictures of a single microorganism cell and one of the visible stain (called a colony) on a Petri dishes. This notion was quite difficult for the pupils. We used the analogy of a town (the colony) seen from the space, and only one human, invisible from the space. They measured the diameter of a stain to have an approximation of how many individual microorganisms can compose one colony.

Afterwards the pupils imagined experiments to collect microorganisms. They were eager to contaminate their own dishes as planned, so we let them do that with whatever they wanted: unwashed and washed hands, nose, chocolate,... following these guidelines : not opening the Petri dish after the contamination and annotate it with the date and the name of the experimenter. The notion of negative control was also explained by using a Petri dish without microorganism.

When comparing freshly inoculated Petri dishes and others with clearly visible stains, the pupils understood that it takes time for microorganisms to grow. With the pupils participation, a protocol to measure the growth of the microorganism was set up. They had to take pictures or realize drawn observations in the lab book to describe the microorganisms growth.

For safety reasons, the Petri dishes were sealed with parafilm and an observation post was installed with the pupils. Two weeks later, the teacher gave us back the Petri dishes in order to eliminate the microorganisms properly with our autoclave.

Experimental results through weeks

Due to the french legislation about external intervention in classroom, we were not allowed to come back in the class once more. Both the analysis and the validation were performed in autonomy at school with the support of the teacher.

Two weeks after the intervention, the pupils send to us a report of their experiments. The results were satisfying as every plate contained microorganisms colonies except the negative control.

A new representation of microbial diversity

The consolidation was done by the teacher during the two weeks growing time. We were also involved during this time: because the pupils send us some new questions: for example, they wanted to know how we destroy Petri dishes, and why there was different colours on their dishes. We transmitted our answers to the teacher.

After the consolidation, the pupils did the same work as during the first session: they drew their representation of microorganisms and wrote a feedback (“what I have remembered”) about the pedagogical project.

How did the knowledge of the students evolve after the pedagogical sequence?

The analysis of the pupils work 2 weeks after our intervention revealed a clear evolution of the representation and knowledge of the pupils. Those progress can be sorted as 3 levels.

Level 1

The representation drawing present empty elliptic forms as the E. coli colony observed during the session. The pupils use very often the term microorganism instead of microbe. Here are some characteristics they remembered:

  • “The microorganism can only be observed with a microscope as they cannot be seen with the naked eye.”
  • “Some are good for the body and others are nasty.”
  • “People try to put as few microorganisms as possible in sweets or in cans.”

This level attests a first evolution from the zoomorphic conception of microorganism. Indeed, we can not see any mouth, teeth, eye or insects in the pupils representations. Nevertheless, the attributes “good” and “nasty” show that this evolution has to be consolidated.

Level 2

Besides smooth elliptical shapes the drawings contained flagellum. The characteristics of the level 1 are present but the distinction between pathogen and non pathogen is clearly explicit. (pathogen : dangerous for the body). The pupils precised that microorganisms have to grown on Petri dishes to be observed. The zoomorphic completely disappears at this level.

Level 3

The drawings include elements of the cytoplasm (DNA, proteins) without being explicitly named. In addition of the characteristics of level 1 and 2, the pupils evoke the antiseptic power of some products: bleach and 90% ethanol solution. Those substances do not contain microorganism as they are able to kill them. The term "microbes" is definite as “member of the microorganisms family”. The restored elements show that those pupils have junior high school level of knowledge about microorganisms.


A strong evolution in the representation of all pupils has been observed. Thus our action has had a positive impact on all pupils regardless of their prior knowledge about the subject. We have manifestly contributed to the construction of a non zoomorphic representation of microorganisms and to the discovery of a new world that was widely unknown. Their curiosity and their enthusiasm truly impressed us! As iGEMers, with those interventions, we understood how the concepts we used daily in our lab were seen by children. We learnt that during a scientific project  or career, we have to stay close to children and education. Indeed, with their representations and their questionnements, we were able to stand back from our “researcher” point of vue and consider our scientific field differently.

  • Card game conception
  • Learning through play
  • Educational game design
  • Discussion

Card game

Our card game, Microbioworld

Conduct several interventions in schools cause is in our opinion clearly a nice way for pupils to ‘learn by doing’. During this period, we thought is was also a good idea to bring scientific knowledge outside of the classroom. That is why we came up with the idea of creating a strategy card game focused on biology. With this game, we are hoping to draw attention to the hidden world of microorganisms and make it visible elsewhere than on the bench of a scientist or inside a biology student’s notebook. We really wanted to integrate our game in an educational approach and considered it as a nice way to talk about our field of study. Many games already exist on the subject (Strain, Gusty, Bacteria Combat, Healing Blade, …) but they are mainly about antibiotics resistance whereas we wanted to bring something new by presenting some genetic aspects in biotechnology.  

The card game was indeed designed to get people to understand biodiversity, microbiology and genetics by a playful approach. It is meant to be accessible to a large audience. We created this card game in collaboration with game design students to get an attractive product we can share with as many people as possible. They also gave us a unique point of view by being both insiders of the game conception and having no advanced education in science. We thus tested it gradually with the help of scientists and general public to improve the gameplay so that it can be both fun and scientifically accurate.

We are aware that our game can raise interrogations about horizontal gene transfer and genetic engineering of living organisms, as the player acts as a bacteria colony attacking others and can grow in strength by acquiring plasmids. The main goal of our card game is to provide basic knowledge and vocabulary about biology to a young or a general audience so that they can later construct their own opinion. We therefore hope in engaging a discussion about science in society, and unleash the player’s curiosity about microbiology.

One of our first version of Microbioworld!

Learning through play

With the increasing use of serious games in education and corporations, it may seem obvious today that learning through games is a much more efficient and pleasing way to reach out to children or people in general. This concept seems to assume that children or even adults don’t usually enjoy learning the traditional way, but it is actually a wrong statement. Everyone do indeed love learning when it is relevant and when they can find their own motivations in it. As the main motivation for playing a game is also entertainment and is caused by curiosity, it is a perfect way to start an enjoyable learning process.

“Game-playing is a vital educational function for any creature capable of learning”
(Crawford,  The Art of Computer Game Design, 1982)

According to Malone and Lepper1, there are 7 factors to provoke personal and interpersonal motivation. The rules and design of ‘Microbioworld’ were created around these 7 factors:

  • Challenge

    The goal is clear: to get to 10 log of bacteria or be the last living colony; it allows the player to elaborate a strategy. Moreover, random shuffling of the cards makes it complex enough to be enjoyable.

  • Curiosity

    The graphic designs of the cards make the game visual and attractive at first sight, and the educational booklet that explains the link between the game and the scientific reality gives the player desire to know more about what they just saw in the game. The gameplay is also arousing curiosity due to the variability of the cards and the possible combos which are making every game and strategy different.

  • Control

    By choosing an action at the beginning of every turn, the player has a power on the outcome of the game.

  • Fantasy

    The game illustrates a setup situation in which selected bacteria grow and develop in Petri dishes. The context of the game can be seen as a simplified model of the world where its elements and the interactions between them are used as pedagogical tools.

  • Competition

    By attacking or dividing, players are in competition with each other and social interaction is making the game dynamic.

  • Cooperation

    Some situations in the game (contaminant fungus, morphotype, symbiose... ) also make people create alliance and strategies together against common enemies.

  • Recognition

    The possibility of winning the game can provide an exciting goal to reach and is a personal accomplishment that players want to achieve even if it is only an end in itself and has no further use.

Educational game design: a balance between the learning content and game content

According to Bjørner and Hansen2, the most important thing to keep in mind when creating an educational game is to find the most suitable compromise between the quality and amount of learning content, and the potential of fun of the game content. That’s why we always have to think about these questions:

  • Is the card game scientifically accurate and interesting?
  • Are the rules and mechanisms clear enough for the game to be playable?
  • Is the game comprehensive, fun and challenging enough to give a motivation for playing?
  • Is the card game in accordance with ethical criteria?

They also explain that a lot of educational games fail to inform or entertain players because they are not engaging enough and also because there is no clear link between the gameplay and what the designers want to teach.

To prevent that, we used an iterative approach to design ‘Microbioworld’ which help us to answer to the previous main questions about the game. We realised that even if the player was the main actor of the design process, it was not possible to create a game without implicating different stakeholders.

Simultaneously, we asked researchers, teachers and scientists to validate the learning content, and game designers to validate the game content. Because it has to do with modifying bacteria so they can gain powers, we also requested the help of ethics experts. We also tested the game with the public that leads us to simplify the rules. Therefore, we’ve made around 10 different versions of the card game before to get the last one, Microbioworld. We used to test our different versions with our instructors and families to improve the gameplay: here you can see the team playing at the version Δ7bis with instructors after the weekly meeting:

Our instructors and us playing to Microbioworld, this summer, to improve the gameplay

As we want to improve our game to be perfectly balanced in the gameplay, we made a survey to take into account different comments of people who played to it. (you can see it on this page!)

We organised a Microbioworld tournament with students of the M2 (Master 2nd Year) "Molecular Microbiology" of the Université Paul Sabatier. We made them fill our survey : in general, people really liked the concept of the game. They was happy to find they favorit bacteria with special capacities in a game, and they found the illustrations funny (especially the chiadé plasmid). Students particularly appreciated the rigor of scientific notions mentioned in the game, but we noted that no one has the idea to consult the explicative booklet on our wiki to go further.

Students from M2 "Molecular Microbiology" discovering our game Microbioworld

We also created an explicative booklet (click here to see the iteractive version!) that gives more information about the game rules and mechanisms, and also explains the science underneath each card effect. As the vocabulary used in the game is specific to the biology field, it was important to define and explain the concepts that are behind it for people who would like to go further. However, it is not necessary for the players to read the whole explanations to understand how to play the game. Thus, it engages the player to demonstrate autonomy in his learning process instead of teaching him a lecture without engaging any responsibility or action on his behalf. According to the discovery learning theory, people are more likely to remember concepts and knowledge when they discover it on their own.

Create a group discussion and discard people misconceptions

The main goal of our card game was in the first place to give some basic knowledge about microbiology and synthetic biology to people who are not familiar with it, but we realized there was a risk to trigger a sensible debate about genetically engineered microorganisms. The plasmids of the game are indeed generally giving a characteristic that could be considered as a superpower used to attack other living organisms. As we wanted the game to be as much scientifically accurate as possible, this game mechanic could make people think that biologists can easily integrate dangerous genes into bacteria or create biological weapons. On the other hand, we thought creating a discussion around it could be interesting.

With the latest advances in the biotechnologies field and the media coverage they get, the general public today is already implicitly involved in the way of the technology is moving forward. That is why we thought the card game would also be a nice basis to initiate a discussion. We did not want to give any of our opinions about the subjects we brought into the game and we only described facts about biological phenomena, microorganisms and their characteristics. We have adopted an objective position to share some knowledge to those who play ‘Microbioworld’, without taking a side: we wanted them to build their own moral reflection about the risks and opportunities in modern biology.

We also took care not to present only pathogen bacteria, because it would not have reflected the natural microbiological balance and we didn’t want people to think only “mean” microorganisms exist. Furthermore, we know that our game is basically about a war between microorganisms because the “offensive powers” (plasmids) that players are using to win introduce the concept of conflict in the game. However, we wanted it to be clear that it is only a pretext to make the game fun and interactive. Indeed, war games often depict a real life simulation where the moral choices of “attacking” or “fighting” somebody or something is not made by the player but guided by the game designer. To us, there was still a need of placing the player in the center of the reflection. That is why we clarified in the game booklet what is the part of reality and what in the mechanisms was included for fun purpose only. We don’t want players of ‘Microbioworld’ to think that researchers also have fun creating super powerful bacteria to kill everyone! Which is by the way scientifically impossible.

Moreover, one of the risk of creating graphical designs of biological phenomena to attract curiosity was to create misconceptions about what these phenomena really are. For example, after interpretation of the children representations made during our interventions in schools, we concluded that children of these ages often considered microorganisms as little animal or insects. For fun purpose, the game graphic designers decided to draw bacteria with faces to personify it and we kept it that way, but there was a need to specify in the game booklet some adjustments and define precisely where the boundary between reality and artistic freedom is. We also decided to make the game accessible to children from age 10 because we thought it could be hard for primary schools children to distinguish clearly this boundary, mostly because they don’t have the necessary knowledge and critical thinking to understand that yet.


  1. Malone, T. & Lepper (1987). Making Learning Fun: A Taxonomy of Intrinsic Motivations for Learning. In Snow, R. & Farr, M. J. (Ed), Aptitude, Learning, and Instruction Volume 3: Conative and Affective Process Analyses. Hillsdale, NJ
  2. Bjørner, T., & Hansen, C. B. S. (2010). Designing an Educational Game: Design Principles from a Holistic Perspective. International Journal of Learning, 17(10), 279-290.
  • European Researcher's night
  • Context: GMOs in France
  • GMO quiz game
  • Workshops in a circuit

European Researcher's night

The European Researcher’s Night is a major scientific event that gather researchers and general public in a convivial atmosphere. This is the opportunity for laboratories to communicate on their work in a creative way, and to share scientific and ethical values with the public. We especially want to thank the LISBP, our host laboratory for our iGEM experiments, that helped us for the workshop design and animation of the event. In 2017, the topic of the event was “(Im)possible?”.

Our motivations for being involved in this event were to face an adult public and change their prejudices on GMOs. We wanted people to discover our field, synthetic biology, by making them questioning themselves on GMOs through 3 approaches: biodiversity, application and legislation.

Context: how to deal with GMOs in France?

During several meetings with the french public and from our experience as biologists, we have observed that in France, most of people are afraid of GMOs and ignore why it has been created in the first place. They usually can’t tell exactly what can be done in the field of medicine, environment or even nutrition, and more important, we have noted that people use to think scientists can do anything they want in their labs with GMOs manipulation. Indeed, french press is not kind with biotechnologies. For example, we have encountered a journalist from “France Inter”, a famous radio in France, to talk about our iGEM project and he asked us not to say the word “GMO” during the interview because he didn’t want to create a polemic… It was really frustrating for us to imagine our project had to be censored before being heard by the public. We believe that we need to establish a dialogue between scientists and general public to remove prejudices.

Thus, we had to face this challenge: how to make people question themselves on synthetic biology and legislation?

Design of our game “Possible or Impossible”

Andragogy methods

As we want to encounter an adult public to establish a discussion, we needed to study teaching methods for them to be open to a dialogue: those methods are parts of the andragogy studies. We found several publications studying andragogy and we tried to highlight the main points of it for future iGEMers to get inspired on our investigation.

First, the adult learner is self-directed and has a need to be perceived by others as self-directing. When adult learners find themselves in situations in which they are not allowed to be self-directing, their reactions are “bound to be tainted with resentment and resistance”.

Second, the adult learner has accumulated life experiences that represent an essential resource for learning. When an adult learner’s experience is ignored or devalued, s/he feels rejected as a person. That is so because “to an adult learner, his experience is who he is”.

Finally, adult learners have a problem-centered approach to learning rather than a subject-centered approach. The social work adult learner wants “to apply tomorrow what he learns today, so his time perspective is one of immediacy of application” (A. Gitterman : “Interactive Andragogy: Principles, Methods, and Skills”, 2004).

Game principle

This investigation got us involved in creating a quiz game about biotechnologies, in the form of a card game. To be close of the European Researchers Night theme, “(Im)Possible?”, we’ve called this game “Possible or Impossible”: its goal is to guess if the affirmation on the top of the card is rather “Possible” or “Impossible” with an instinctive answer. We have classed our 35 cards into 3 topics: biodiversity, application and legislation (see examples below).

This game has been made for people to be autonomous: they can play without our help and they are not afraid to be wrong (which refers to the most important point of the andragony studies: the adult is a self-directed learner). Because it raises interrogations, this game has been a good approach to open a dialog with adults. We observed that people used to start the discussion explaining their own experience or thoughts on the topics that awoke their curiosity: we managed to start the discussion by developing learner’s experience, the second main point to be respected in an andragogy approach.

Those questions aim to introduce several biodiversity particularities.
These cards aim to demystify the french legislation on GMOs to people. Their goal is to break the prejudices of the public on the use of genetically modified microorganisms in french labs.
These questions highlight several examples of GMOs applications on different fields (health, environment, industry…)

Our workshop: a synthetic biology learning circuit

In order to follow the year’s thematic “(Im)Possible”, we chose to focus our workshop on the incredible features of biodiversity, how to use it in synthetic biology, and what are legal limits on GMO use in France. To do this, we’ve designed a circuit of workshops for people to follow a logical discovery path: raising curiosity first, then make people question themselves on synthetic biology capabilities and limits, thus make them practice scientific experiments, in order to finally open a debate to go further.

Click on one of the workshops to know more about it!

Introduction on microbial diversity with our card game MicrobioWorld

We designed this game in order to introduce the fascinating world of microorganisms. Some basics about microbiology are illustrated in this game like natural antibiotics resistance, horizontal DNA transfer by conjugation and transduction, plasmid incompatibility, culture media selection or even bacterial characteristics (gram, morphotype…). Although some notions seem complicated for the general public, the gameplay has been adapted to be understood by everyone.

You can click on this page's Microbioworld section to know more about how we design it, or take a look at the game's rules in the game booklet.

A black box containing bioluminescent Vibrio harveyi: show an impressive capacity of living organisms

Observation of a every day life using microorganism: Saccharomyces cerevisiae

...for people to have a concrete idea on what is a microorganism, and make them realize that they are used in the everyday life.

Question yourself on GMO capabilities and legal limits with our quizz “Possible or Impossible”

Basics about DNA with a practical approach

The particularity of this workshop is that it can be repeated at home with tools of everyday life. It is made to introduce what is DNA with a practical approach rather than with theoretical lessons.

The example of a gene function with an enzymatic dosage of β-galactosidase

  • Conference
  • Programme
  • Living machine?
  • Twitter


In order to bring scientists, students and teachers to exchange together about synthetic biology, we have organised a conference at the science campus of the Toulouse university. Our motivation was to open up the debate on ethics in synthetic biology with a concerned public through the intervention of specialists from the ethics, biotechnologies and synthetic biology fields. It was also a good opportunity to introduce iGEM in Toulouse and to gather former iGEMers of the Toulouse team.

Program of the conference

Kaymeuang Cam: Introduction on synthetic biology

Kaymeuang Cam: Researcher at IPBS, Professor of genetic microbiology at Université Paul Sabatier and PI of iGEM Toulouse last years

Mr Cam made a presentation to introduce synthetic biology, making comparison between electronic engineering and the use of biobricks. He summarized the key milestones that made the history of this particular field in science.

Gilles Truan: iGEM and openscience

Gilles Truan: Lab director at LISBP and former PI of iGEM team Toulouse

Mr Truan explained to the audience the principle of iGEM competition and the particularity of the registry, a perfect example of open science. The goal of his intervention was to make people realise that there is other ways to publish experimental results in science and that there are alternatives to patents.

Bettina Couderc : Biotechnologies and health

Bettina Couderc: Researcher at CRCT and Professor of Biotechnology at Université Paul Sabatier

Mrs Couderc illustrated several aspects of biotechnologies: genome editing, cell and genetic therapies. Her intervention had for main goal to show what are the last breakthroughs in health research, and what are its perspectives in our society; she introduced ethical reflexions on the use of genetic engineering for health.

Vincent Grégoire-Delory: Synthetic biology and ethics

Vincent Grégoire-Delory: director of superior school of science ethics and Professor at catholic institute of Toulouse

Mr Grégoire Delory made an introduction on ethics in synthetic biology, a field in which people are used to consider living things are like machines. We came back to the definition of life: what is a living organism ? He tried to make people wondering their selves on the frontier between natural and artificial things. (see the paragraph 2. below for more informations on ethics in synthetic biology!). We were really pleased to see that those presentation raised a public debate on twitter (see the paragraph 3. below!).

Sarah Guizou: E. calculus project

Sarah Guizou: Former iGEMer of the first iGEM Toulouse team in 2013

Sarah came back in Toulouse to talk about her experience of iGEM. Her project, E. calculus is at the frontier of biology and mathematics. (see more on their wiki). It was really interesting to talk about mathematics in synthetic biology after the intervention of Vincent Grégoire-Delory.

Benoit Pons and Marine Pons: Api Coli project

Benoit Pons and Marine Pons: former iGEMers of the iGEM Toulouse team in 2015

Marine and Benoit presented us their project Api Coli, a synthetic biology regulation project to fight against the varroa, a bees parasite. (see more on their wiki)

Camille Roux and Manon Barthe: Paleotilis project

Camille Roux and Manon Barthe: Members of the iGEM Toulouse team last year

Camille and Manon presented the same prezi they made last year for the Giant Jamboree and explained their project Paleotilis to the audience. They engineered B. subtilis to kill fungus that destroy the rock painting of the Lascaux cave in France. (see more on their wiki)

iGEM Toulouse 2017: Croc’n Cholera project

Exactly one month before Boston, this conference was also the opportunity to test our presentation and our ability to answer questions of a scientific public. We were glad to present our work to formers iGEMers, to the guests, to some of our teachers who came for the occasion and to all the students who came at the conference.

Convivial buffet for further discussions

After the conference, everybody was invited to a buffet to exchange and continue discussions in a friendly ambiance. We had a good time with formers iGEMers, who exchanged with us about their experience of iGEM and gave us some secret fun facts about our iGEM instructors… We noted that people were feeling comfortable to talk about ethics after several glasses of Gaillac, an excellent white wine from the region of Toulouse!

Awareness on the “living-machine”: Can we consider the living as a technical object?

Here is a short summary we made on several ethical questionings highlighted by Vincent Gregoire-Delory after the conference for people that consult our web site!

Living organisms are not technical objects: they can form themselves from different parts whereas those of the second one are just put together by a designer. However, transplants, organ donation or genetic complementations show us that we can replace defective parts of a living organism just like a machine… In these conditions, can we consider the living as a technical object?

The point is to know if this comparison has a meaning by questioning ourselves on the relation between art, technique and nature to establish a frontier separating natural and artificial things. Farming and genetics have made evolved some living beings (that already existed independently from human). Fruits that we’re consuming, farmed animals, our own body modified by our alimentation, or even the different postures imposed by the use of machines are all artificials things created by our civilisation that made our lives far from the natural processes. Science has moved the frontier between natural and artificial. Do we have to keep this frontier between living and technical tools? Do we have to consider living beings, which are conscious and have feelings, like technical tools? Must we criticize this comparison by putting ethics before technics and biology?

These are all the questions that we must ask ourselves as scientists, and more so as synthetic biologists, when we are working in our labs! Here begins ethical questionings and awareness.

Social networks : a support to debate

During the conference, we made a live-tweet in order for people who couldn't come to the event to follow it. We've read several studies that depicts social networks like a bad support to speak up, in accordance with the theory of the "spiral of silence" (N. Noelle-Neumann, "The Spiral of Silence", 1974). We were surprised to see that the live-tweet of the conference raised a debate on the net about the use of human clones for greffes and clinical tests of anticancer drugs! Mr Couderc and Mr Grégoire-Delory have started a real discussion, but people didn't tell their questions directly during the conference. Our advice for future iGEMers who want to open up that kind of discussion with the public is to use twitter to launch a debate on science and ethics!

  • High school lab
  • Context
  • Report
  • Feedback
  • Methods

High school lab

We’ve prepared an intervention for High School senior students in scientific classes (between 17 and 18 years old). Our involvement was focused on 3 main goals: implementing a learner-centered pedagogical approach in a high school class, helping pupils know more about biotechnologies through a practical approach, and discussing on “how to be part of science, and which studies to choose after high school?”.

Our motivation was to share our experience of the “after high school world” with young students, explaining them our choices and motivations for studying science, and in particular synthetic biology. We’ve designed a special practical work for students to figure out what is the scientific method, and what is the everyday work in a biology laboratory.

Context: The French educational system applied to teach science and its challenges

In our French education system, students are selected over short periods (final year in high school and preparatory school), and high school studies mainly focus on theoretical teaching. Preparatory classes and school entrance exams have endowed the scientific disciplines with a selective role. Students must focus their learning on standard exercises that must be reproduced within a given time in order to pass extremely formal examinations (the French Baccalauréat and graduate school entrance exams). Educational studies have demonstrated that the best students have acquired solid "scientific background" but often lack "scientific know-how". For the majority of them, knowledge is acquired through repetition, not by any investigative aspiration for autonomy. In fact, science does not always function by repetition or transmission. The development of experimental techniques and new knowledge always go hand in hand. It is seemingly impossible to separate the results of speculation, culture or knowledge from what is due to pragmatism, endeavour, or skills. Knowledge and know-how are inseparable in any innovative scientific and technical process. The aim is more to merge these skills within the teaching of science. If science is taught from this perspective, it becomes a particularly efficient tool for developing skills in innovation, autonomy, self-learning and creativity (1). In the view of the current situation, we have chosen to do a practical work based both on a "learning-by-doing method" and on a scientific approach for students to discover a new field of science: biotechnologies.

Report on the intervention

What are biotechnologies, and how to be part of it?

The intervention was divided into 2 parts. First, we made a short presentation (20 minutes) about different fields of biotechnologies, and we chose some prominent examples for each field. The goal of this presentation was to help pupils know more about an unknown field for students that are questioning themselves on their future careers and studies. We made a short introduction about iGEM, and we explained the different studies of the members of the team. We thought that was very important to explain the role of each member in the team because it highlights how a scientific team works and what skills are appreciated in such a team. We hope this approach of the scientific studies made students think about what they really want to do after high school, how to do it, and what could be their role if they chose to work in biotechnologies.

Bacterial transformation: an introduction to molecular biology and microbiology

Because we wanted students to understand what kinds of experiments are made in biotechnology laboratories, we’ve prepared a bacterial transformation experiment. In a first time, we explained to students what they had in their eppendorf tubes: one containing DNA, and one containing the bacteria E. coli. Then, we started the experiment by mixing gently 10 µL of DNA into the bacteria tube. We noted that students were troubled by manipulating an unknown DNA, which was really a good reaction!

In a second time, during the "chill on ice" step, we made students question themselves on that question: do you think that DNA is able to enter inside bacteria? We were pleased to hear from students that the membrane will prevent the entry of DNA inside the bacteria. It was the occasion to explain to students the particularity of the bacterial cell wall, and cell wall permeabilization in competent bacteria. We described to them the plasmid map, and made the focus on 3 sequences: the ORI sequence, to approach the notions of DNA replication and bacterial division; the chloramphenicol-resistance sequence, to explain to students why laboratories need to use antibiotic-resistant strains; and the gene encoding the enzyme β-galactosidase, to remind them mechanisms of transcription and translation they had already learnt in class, and to go further, doing an introduction on molecular biology.

After that, we made the heat shock, and put bacteria at 37°C. We made students question themselves on why we needed to incubate our transformed bacteria before plating them on petri dishes, and they answered that bacteria must repair their membrane and cell wall during this time. We explained them that bacteria needed to express the chloramphenicol resistance gene. After making them think on a scientific approach (see 3. c. below), they plated they transformed bacteria on petri dishes.

From a gene to a function: introduction on biochemistry

Teachers informed us that students had a course the week before about enzymatic reactions. We took the example of the natural reaction catalysed by the β-galactosidase, that hydrolyzes lactose to galactose and glucose to remind them the course they had before. Then, we described the x-gal as a substrate analogue to lactose in this reaction, and explained how the product of reaction becomes blue after a change in structure. We made an in-vitro demonstration of the color shift when adding β-galactosidase in a x-gal solution. We made a transformation of E. coli with a plasmid containing the β-galactosidase gene, we made students question themselves on the in-vivo enzyme activity, and made them think of a scientific approach to demonstrate the β-galactosidase activity in their transformed bacteria (see 3. c. below).


Students' feedback

In order for us to question our work, we gave them a little survey to fill in at the end of the intervention. The main goal of this survey was to know if we had succeeded in our pedagogical approach:

Have you been surprised by something?
Did you find the practical work difficult?
Was it interesting?
Is there something you particularly liked or disliked?

Conclusion: according to their answers, we can say that they liked our intervention and found it interesting, in particular experiments. Although some students found the notions difficult, the majority of them were glad to go further than the school program. Even though there are some improvements to do to be better understood by scientific beginners, we can say that our pedagogical approach was a success because students learnt something new.

Teachers' feedback

" This intervention has allowed the students to identify themselves to iGEMers, who were high schoolers like them a few years ago and gained experience in the field of science. The feedback of our students is really positive. The practical work was perfectly executed: a good management of the time with an alternance between protocol steps, where students had to make the experiment by themselves, and scientific explanations on different fields of knowledge (microbiology, biochemistry…). There were also interactions and questionings with our students. High school teachers highlights the importance of the pedagogical methods used in this intervention. We particularly appreciated the anticipation efforts that the iGEM students make to come several times to the high school: they wanted to insure the disponibility and the compatibility of the material for the validation of their protocol (that had to respect the safety rules of our institution). They gave us the protocol soon enough so we were able to insure the feasibility of their intervention for our student’s level in biology. All of our students came back 2 days after the intervention of iGEMers to take pictures of their beautiful petri dishes! We were happy to be introduced to the project of iGEM Toulouse team on cholera, and encouraged them for the competition in Boston! " Muriel GRANDJEAN, biology teacher at Lycée P.P. Riquet of Saint Orens

Methods: How to transmit a scientific message to scientific beginners?

Getting inspired by the “Learner-centered model”

For our educational approach, we’ve been inspired by the "learned-centered pedagogic model", which emphasizes on the student’s interest and motivation. This model highlights the lack of natural learning process in our traditional education system, in which the student’s motivation is mostly based on rewards and punishment in a competitive environment. Natural learning is the way humans learn since birth. It’s a self-motivated and self-directed learning (2).

So our first need was to determine what the motivations of high school senior students classes are. As we discussed earlier, French high school students are focused on two existential questions "What do I want to do after the secondary school?" and "How to get there?". That’s why we chose to share our experience of scientific studies, and open a dialogue between two generations of scientists. We focused our opening speech on the discovery of biotechnologies, and how to be part of it after high school, showing the difference between research and engineering in this field in term of skills. We chose to describe what iGEMers of our team have been studied to illustrate complementarity in a scientific team.

Consulting their school program

To be understood by the young students, we needed to adapt the content of our intervention to their knowledge. For this, their school program was our reference for the conception of the practical work, and to rework on the presentation. We worked with Muriel Grandjean, a high school biology teacher, for the conception of the entire intervention and thanks to her advice we noted that there must be a balance between what students already know, and what you want them to learn during the work. So we based our demonstration on their knowledge, making sure they would not be lost with too much new information. It is essential that learners feel confident with the opening notions of your presentation to establish a dialogue between the learner and the instructor (3).

For the conception of our practical work, the most difficult aspect for us was to adapt our scientific vocabulary. In fact, when we want to teach science, there are specific terms that can’t be simplified, because of scientific rigor. We chose to highlight some important keywords for students to learn the scientific vocabulary. (see our slide presentation for the practical work before)

Making them question themselves through a scientific approach

The scientific method is one of the main objectives of the high school scientific program. It is the foundation of scientific reasoning, giving a specific and predefined plan to follow in the case of a scientific issue/problem/investigation (4) :

During our intervention, we first explained them new notions about molecular biology and microbiology. Then, we proposed a scientific problem in the view of the previous explanations: is the β-galactosidase activity functional in-vivo after the transformation experiment?

Faced with a problem-situation, hypotheses have to be made and new reasoning has to be induced. The inductive phase is very important for creativity. a large place is often given over to the pleasure of doing science. We let students think in small groups to determine their hypotheses, and we noted 2 main hypotheses: some groups expected that β-galactosidase activity would not be functional into bacteria (hypothesis 1), and some other groups expected that β-galactosidase would (be functional) (hypothesis 2).

To verify their hypotheses, students assuming the hypothesis 1, and students assuming the hypothesis 2 had to design an experiment to verify their hypothesis, and to predict hypothetic results, and controls. We’ve noted 2 experimental strategies:

1 - Make 2 liquid cultures with x-gal, one containing our transformed bacteria, and one negative control with wt bacteria. Then make a dosage of galactose, the reaction product: if the galactose concentration is higher in transformed bacteria, it means that the enzyme is functional in-vivo.

2 - Make 2 petri dishes: one with x-gal, and one without x-gal. Plate our transformed bacteria on those petri dishes and incubate 24h; if there are blue colonies on the x-gal petri dish and white colonies on the other, it means that the enzyme is functional in-vivo.

For material reasons, we made them conduct the second one, and we added one negative control: the plate of wt bacteria on x-gal petri dishes. Two days after, their teachers showed them the results to make this conclusion: the β-galactosidase activity is functional in-vivo after the transformation experiment. The hypothesis has been confirmed. This deductive phase is very important for objectivity and responsibility. It sometimes appears laborious but it is a prerequisite for scientific rigour.

Special Thanks

We especially want to thank the “Lycée Pierre Paul Riquet” of Saint Orens (a city next to Toulouse) that allowed us to carry out this work, and particularly Mme Grandjean, a teacher of Biology in this high school, who helped us for the design of our intervention, and the adjustment of our vocabulary for scientific beginners.


  1. L. Bot & al:” ‘Learning by doing’: a teaching method for active learning in scientific graduate education “ August 2004
  2. J. Scott Armstrong:” Natural Learning in Higher Education” 1-1-2011
  3. H. Lenoir : “Bases théoriques et Méthodologiques” p.31 to 48
  4. M. Develay: “Sur la méthode expérimentale”


We took part to “Exposcience” which is a scientific festival that took place on the 30th and 31th of May in Toulouse. This festival highlights youths projects by enabling them to present what they have done in relation with science, techniques and environnement. It’s an occasion to share, to talk about and to encourage scientific initiatives.

We realised that if we want to have an impact on society we should impact children, representing the future of our society. Our motivation to be involved in this event as a mixed team, was to show kids that gender equality is possible in science. We also thought it would be interesting to make them discover the world of science and microorganisms, that often suffers from misconceptions or prejudices. Talking about it with young children, parents and teachers can be a good way to raise awareness for its utility and perspective of use. For the conception of our workshops, we wanted to make children participate and interact with us, so that they’ll remember the majority of our interventions, and practice a scientific experiment by themselves. In our interactions, we tried to incite girls to participate as much as boys so that they gain confidence in themselves and in what they’re capable of.

Children have extracted banana DNA thanks to simple ingredients that they can find in their kitchen. The goal of this workshop was to make children understand what is DNA, where can we find it, what is its goal and what is its nature. If you want to do this workshop, you can use our protocol below:

For the most shy children, we made a fortune teller about microorganisms. We observed that they indeed folded it and played with each other, asking questions about microbiology. We realised that it is a good tool for children to get interested in science.

We also discussed with them about microorganisms by the mean of games and for the most interested, we explained our iGEM project Croc’n Cholera: it was a good opportunity for us to do a survey about cholera to measure the level of knowledge of the public on this matter and to raise awareness concerning this disease.

Exhibitions on campus

We realised that students of the scientific campus are not aware of iGEM Toulouse projects, and in general of synthetic biology issues. So we organised exhibitions at INSA Toulouse and Université Paul Sabatier library to highlight former iGEM Toulouse projects and potential of synthetic biology.

In order to make iGEM projects understandable for all scientist students (and not only for biologists), we redesigned posters of previous projects E. calculus, SubtiTree, ApiColi, Paleotilis, and of our project Croc’n Cholera. A poster on iGEM and Synthetic Biology was also created as well as another explaining the cloning techniques. Indeed, it is a basic technique used in synthetic biology. We also created a timeline with photos illustrating the key moments of our adventure in the iGEM competition this year. A computer was freely accessible to go on our Wiki.

To make this exhibition more interactive, we organized a "Discovery of Biology" workshop at Bib'INSA. For a whole afternoon, we held a booth with different workshops to explain to students what biology is (our Microbioworld card game, our Possible/Impossible quizz, DNA extraction and bioluminescent bacteria: you can go on the "Researcher's night" event to know more about it).

Finally, another workshop was proposed to speak about synthetic biology by showing them pink or blue bacteria. We explained to them the cloning technique for the insertion of a DNA fragment which can for example encode for a colored molecule, then making the bacterium pink or blue.

Press & Media

The 20 minutes is a daily free generalist newspaper aimed at commuters who want quick and concise information, reaching a wide audience. We appeared in the regional section of the online version of it. Thus we were pleased to reach the local inhabitants to mobilize them and make them know about science initiatives in their living area.

Click here to read the full article (in french)

Coté Toulouse is a weekly free paper aiming to deliver all the local information. Once again we were pleased to reach at the local inhabitants of Toulouse to show them what the students of their city are doing and to mobilize them around the project.

Click here to read the full article (in french)

La dépêche du midi is a regional daily newspaper sold in approximately 150,000 copies everyday. Thus it reaches a wide public living in a large area. This publication was an opportunity to make this audience discover our project and to tickle their curiosity to learn more.

Click here to read the full article (in french)

After being interviewed by local and regional newspaper we were thrilled that Le Journal du Dimanche published an article about our project. Indeed it is a weekly national newspaper reaching around 200,000 people. This article obviously gave our team a national exposure, along with synthetic biology and the iGEM competition. We hope that this article tickled the curiosity of many french people.

Click here to read the full article (in french)

Aujourd’hui en France is a national weekly newspaper gathering almost 140,000 readers every day. It emphasis the interesting regional initiatives in France, giving them more exposure. We were thus delighted to be part of these noteworthy projects.

Click here to read the full article (in french)

Our project was also presented in the online version of France info which is a french radio. Some members of the team were interviewed by the journalist and it was a good practice to present our project in a popularized way with our words.

Click here to read & listen the full article (in french)