Education and Public Engagement

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Summary of our Education and Public Engagement Activities and Outputs

Aims of our Education and Public Engagement Work

Our Education and Public Engagement work focused on understanding and encouraging dialogue about synthetic biology. To do this, we undertook a journey through science communication. We shared this work with the public- via blog posts, and scientists- in seminars which we held with research groups. Using techniques and influence from the humanities and social sciences, we analysed the language used in science communication, and used this research to produce our own guidelines for communicating synthetic biology to the public.

North-East Big Bang Fair

In July, we attended the North East Big Bang Fair- a large and exciting science fair. Over 2000 students and teachers attended, and we got the opportunity to talk to everyone about synthetic biology, iGEM, and our project! We had a few different activities to get the students and teachers involved with synthetic biology.

‘Build your own Biosensor’ is an interactive activity we developed to get the students thinking about synthetic biology independently. Many of the students did not know what a biosensor was, so this was also a good way to introduce the function and purpose of biosensors in an understandable and relatable way. We asked the students to think about what they would like to sense (an input), and how this would be detected (an output). There were lots of fun and creative responses!

We also had many great conversations with both school pupils and teachers, based around 4 main questions that we posed:

  • What is synthetic biology?
  • What do you think synthetic biology can achieve?
  • How does the current curriculum tackle synthetic biology, and how would you change science teaching if you could?
  • How do you engage with science outside of the classroom?

It was great to spread awareness of synthetic biology among the next generation of scientists, and even give teachers ideas for how they could introduce synthetic biology teaching into their lessons!

Corpus Linguistics

Corpus linguistics is a method which can be used to access and analyse large bodies of text, and uncover patterns within them. In our research, we used corpus linguistics to complete searches for the terms genetic engineering, synthetic biology, GMO and biosensor . We searched two main corpora which contain texts published in the media from 1995- present day, and completed analysis which allowed us to see how the media uses language to discuss these topics, and which attitudes are presented.

The corpus linguistics research made us more aware of the lack of coverage of synthetic biology within media texts. It also showed how discussion around synthetic biology is populated with both positive and negative viewpoints, whilst giving indications of how we can use language to accentuate the positive, and increase clarity and transparency in communication.

The report linked here is a detailed discussion of the corpus linguistics research and findings: A Corpus Based Investigation Into Science Communication.

Synthetic Biology Communication Guidelines

As a culmination of our research into science communication, we have complied a set of guidelines for communicating synthetic biology to the public. These guidelines can be used for different purposes, including: to advise scientists when communicating about their work to the press; to guide in how to present to the public; and to help iGEM teams writing up their work!

The guidelines start with some more general points to consider when you start to communicate synthetic biology. They also make use of the information we gained during the corpus linguistics research to suggest some more specific linguistic features to consider when communicating synthetic biology.

Read the guidlines here: Breaking down the barriers: How should we communicate SynBio to the public?

Science Communication Seminars

To share our work in science communication with an audience of scientists, we held seminars with two research groups. In these seminars, we presented our research, and then opened up for discussions and debate about the issues we had raised. A lot of the scientists had stories to tell about personal experiences they’d had with science communication, and it was interesting to hear how they felt our research could have an impact!

Transform and Translate

After finding out how people of varying ages engage with science outside of the classroom at Big Bang, we were inspired to write a blog about the science communication areas of our research. The blog, Transform and Translate, can be found here.

Social media and online sources were really popular ways of reading about science outside of the classroom, so the blog helped us engage in a more informal and wide-reaching way.

We also maintained an active presence on our twitter (@newcastle_igem) to share all of our iGEM activities and interact with the worldwide iGEM community.


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