Using the BLUE(R) Protocol for Interdisciplinary Approaches to Public Engagement and Outreach
In our analysis of past year’s iGEM teams, we noticed that a lot of teams did amazing activities for outreach; however, at times, it seemed a little random. Therefore, we set out to provide future iGEM teams with a method of organizing their thought processes and directing their creative energy in a more efficient manner.
In this phase, determine what group or segment of the general population you want to target. Justify this reasoning. What are some of the biggest problems in synthetic biology, and what can your team do to address these issues? Be aware of time constraints and reachability constraints. Our team tried to do whatever we could, but were careful not to overexert our energy. The point of public engagement is to build tools for synthetic biology and to make it fun; if it feels like a chore, you’re taking the wrong approach. If you are having a hard time, use our IHP RED Framework as a driving source of inspiration. Our team often used interviews that highlighted specific problems and worked to address these in the most thorough way possible.
Now that you have decided what group your team wants to interact with, learn more about them. Think about specific methods of reaching out to this group. Weigh out the drawbacks and advantages of each approach. If feeling stuck, consider the following questions:
- Is this one of the most efficient ways that we can interact with this group?
- What existing solutions are there and how much margin is there for real improvement?
- Which outreach strategy can impact the most people directly and indirectly? Does your team prioritize one over the other? There are two types of engagement: direct and indirect. Direct refers to those in which your team will directly interact with through discussions, and indirect is ones in which you will never directly know the individual, including social media and online methods.
- Does the approach promote bidirectional dialogue? As a team, you want to avoid talking “at” people and start talking with people. Make sure that there is something for both sides; often, teams will disseminate information but not be able to extract much value from their activity. We do not want future iGEM teams to suffer from this issue.
In an approach for more informed outreach and engagement, we found that it was very helpful to confirm our initial thought process with members of the target group and initiate contact before the actual outreach event happened. Often times, talking to the group beforehand will help you make modifications for a more effective approach. If necessary, go back to the Learning phase of this protocol and choose a strategy that you have previously rejected. Figure out the specific context that will enhance the dialogue that you are about to promote.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Is this a completely new activity? Can we anticipate some of the challenges that this approach will bring?
- If it is an activity that is common amongst teams, how are we doing this differently? Why is our approach more effective or larger in scope?
Actually perform the activity. Take down notes of what went well and what didn’t. This will be extremely helpful in the final step of our protocol. This is the fun part of this protocol! Interacting with the public and showcasing your knowledge is one of the best parts of iGEM, and we fully encourage all teams to take a step back and just enjoy the actual engagement. It is important to be flexible and anticipate possible problems, but that shouldn’t take the fun out of it.
Results and Reflect
This is one of the most important aspects of our project. After determining the results of your outreach activity, ask yourself the following questions:
- What did we learn? How can this be better?
- Was our approach as effective as we expected it to be? More or less so? Why?
- Were we able to have a meaningful two-way dialogue?
In addition, the 2017 iGEM team has designed a holistic rubric that can help you assess the overall success and failures of your activity. Use our rubric if you have a hard time.
The key component is to react from the engagement activity; often times, teams will stop after performing the activity. However, it is essential that teams revisit the activity and determine how to fix it for next time, combine it with another approach, or further communicate with the target group as a result of the initial interaction.
Key Outcomes of the BLUE(R) Framework
As a team, we didn’t want to learn or about synthetic biology in a vacuum. Instead, we wanted to focus on making effective, educational tools that would allow us to reach out to a diverse audience. We decided to have two types of approaches regarding public engagement: after determining our target segment and then dividing them into smaller groups, we would try to have activities geared towards the specific groups as well as something that could appeal to everyone.
We also applied BLUE(R) to two separate “groups” of activities: (1) activities that were commonly used by teams to reach out (social media, lab tours, symposium presentations, written articles) and (2) activities that have been never implemented by an iGEM team in past years. We modified activities in group (1) to be more effective and convey a passion for synthetic biology and activities in (2) often involved interdisciplinary perspectives to reach out to a wider audience.
After using the BLUE(R) framework to perform public engagement activities, it is also very important to take a moment and holistically review the entirety of our accomplishments. In reality, not every activity is going to go exactly as planned. Therefore, it is more useful to analyze everything together. Consider the following criteria, and then see how the UCSD team reached its goals. We hope to inspire teams to follow our rubric and framework in the future.Audiences Reached (on a scale of 1-5, with 5 being the best).
One of the key goals of public engagement is to reach out to a wide variety of audiences. One of the central issues is that we need to spark curiosity about synthetic biology in individuals of all ages and backgrounds, not just those that are most convenient for us. This is why our BLUE(R) framework allows teams to assess the strategies that will be most effective to use in order to reach these target audiences. This invites a sense of variety into your overall approach: rather than grouping activities based on type, it makes more sense to group activities based on target audience.Scope of Impact (on a scale of 1-5, with 5 being the best).
There are three primary levels of impact that an iGEM team should strive for: starting with schoolwide, then to the local community, and finally to the state or region if possible. The most cohesive public engagement projects will start off specific and begin to broaden out; some effective strategies at the school level include lab and classroom presentations; for local outreach, partnering with relevant businesses or public institutions such as library to put together workshops is also a viable strategy. At the statewide level, engaging with government entities is often a very easy way to get involved as well.Bi-Directionality (on a scale of 1-5, with 5 being the best)
A key point missing in many public engagement campaigns is the lack of a two-week street of conversation; initial research into target audience strategies can start this process, and it is important to reflect on the event in order to seek areas for improvement. Rather than “talking” at an audience, talk with them; to make a real, long-term difference in sparking their interest, appeal to them and engage in dialogue that benefits both parties.Analyzed Metrics (on a scale of 1-5, with 5 being the best)
Another category to keep an eye on is metrics that can help you corroborate your responses to the other parts. However, metrics can also be misleading; mere outreach numbers of Facebook and other platforms of social media do not help quantify the impact, but can still help us discern a general trend.
Take a look at our self-assessment here.
After applying BLUE(R) from start to finish, the UCSD team is proud to present the following items (click on each icon to learn more information)
Point 1: A Textbook Covering Synthetic Biology Topics and Complementary App
The entire point of public engagement is to create sustainable tools that help convey a passion for synthetic biology . We realized that as individuals, we were very fortunate to have learned extensive biology in high school. We wanted to help students in high school and college get a better understanding of the concepts that are the foundational blocks for successful synthetic biologists. In America, the standard book for the AP Bio curriculum is Campbell and Reece: Biology. It offers an interesting bottom-top approach that begins the basics of cell anatomy, transitions into metabolic biochemistry processes such as respiration and photosynthesis, and then discusses cell signaling and evolution. Eventually, all of this factors into an understanding of ecology and ecosystems. However, we realized that for most students, they start losing interest because the information isn’t relevant to them.
We surveyed students from 3 separate school districts (two in Northern California and one in Southern California) and found that nearly 57% of individuals needed biology to be more entertaining or attention grabbing . In addition, our consultation with Dr. Reuther revealed a similar problem in his introductory biology classes at UCSD. Therefore, we decided to take a different approach to synthetic biology education and decided to write a textbook to reflect these changes .
Instead of approaching it as a standard textbook, we decided to teach the same concepts as part of larger topics that were more interesting or relevant for students. For example, to teach students about how viruses work, we decided to talk about the mechanism of HIV and current medications such as AZT. We applied this sort of logical thinking to 16 different topics, and compiled it into a first draft of the textbook.
However, our work was not done yet. We wanted to have a chance to improve our textbook and serve the needs of our target audience. After several trials of beta testing, some students suggested that using electronic media would be a more accessible way for many teenagers. We took their suggestion into account and decided to make an app that offered short synopses for the different topics in a more concise format. Our app will be available on the app store on November 5th.
In addition, our interview with Dr. Reuther and our personal experiences made us realize that to get maximum value from our textbook, it would be helpful to have some sort of assessment at the end in order to make sure that students can truly retain the information and apply it rather than simply regurgitate it. Thus, we went back and added in case study questions to ensure that our textbook is an effective learning tool.
For this activity, we also managed to talk to several teachers about integrating this textbook as an alternative for their curriculum. This opportunity also gave us a better perspective on the importance of an effective education tool in biology. We also managed to host the textbook on the No Stoppin' server and they have asked for an even more extensive collaboration in the near future.
Results and Reflect
Due to our efforts this summer, we managed to publish a textbook, make a complementary app, and begin the next stage of improving this edition by talking to nearly 300 students across 3 school districts . We also partnered with a nonprofit called No Stoppin’ which is dedicated to setting up an accessible, online education platform especially for science courses. This ensures that our team will be able to carry on these efforts long after the competition has ended.
In the spirit of collaboration amongst iGEM teams, we will make the textbook open-source after the Jamboree and invite more collaborators to expand our project. Please let us know if you are interested.
Point 2: Sustainable Energy Initiative MUN Conference and Policy Brief
In our interview with Frank FIelds of the Mayfield Lab, we learned that the US government has begun to shift its focus away from sustainability measures and biofuel research, especially after the normalization of oil prices and the business failures of Sapphire Energy and Solazyme. After discussing similar problems with members in different bio-industries, we realized that it would be important to ensure a mechanism to enact change while our product was still in our prototyping phase. We decided that our two key goals through this aspect of our project would be to educate younger students about the importance of green energy, and get their thoughts on what we could do to leave a meaningful impact. It was also important for us to involve students with a non-scientific background.
After considering options such as a mini-documentary and a personal community campaign that involved door-to-door education, we decided to host an MUN conference because it had an interdisciplinary advantage that the other options could not provide. In this scenario, we served as the Energy Council of the UN and challenged high school students to draft a proposal that could address large-scale innovation and attempts to make attitudes towards biofuels and green energy more positive.
Before the actual conference, we also talked to several individuals on the UCSD MUN team, and they gave us helpful pointers to make sure that the end result was a focused resolution that solved a niche problem effectively rather than trying to combat an entire issue ineffectively. We also learned that biofuel summits are not that common under current UN policy, so we would have to prepare a thorough background guide for the students; in addition, the delegates told us that the conference should allow for position papers by each country because that would allow them to see the biofuels debate from a number of different perspectives, and lead to a more well-thought out proposal.
At the conference, the delegation from Torrey PInes High School, representing delegates from the United States, India, China, Canada, Russia came together to draft a winning proposal.
Results and Reflect
In our reflection, our team felt that inviting more students would have to led to even more perspectives, which could have led to even more thorough proposals. In next year’s iteration, our team plans to invite a keynote speaker from a local NGO who can help give more insight, and even collaborate with intercollegiate MUN teams to increase our direct impact.
In addition, we realized that the MUN conference proposal would be best achieved if small, local organizations could do their part. Inspired by this, our team decided to start the process of establishing a 501(c)3 nonprofit called Verde Lux . Verde Lux follows many of the directives from the MUN policy brief and is heavily engaged with the San Diego high school ecosystem and synbio resources across the city. We hope to expand its purpose over the next several years, as a placeholder before SynEco becomes commercially available.
Point 3: Using Medium to Foster Discussion about the Ethics of Synthetic Biology
Over the last several years, teams have also attempted to establish bi-directional dialogue through forums and blog posts. We were especially inspired by the scope of the BU forums in 2016, and we wanted to improve upon that model. We realized that perhaps a shift in method of communication would help gain more interest amongst students. However, discussions with several biology instructors suggested that a Socratic Approach might not be feasible for iGEM style public engagement. Instead, many of the teachers suggested that we broaden the scope to all intellectuals.
Although we were correct in realizing that a forum might not be the most effective way to educate individuals for synthetic biology, we initially chose the wrong shift: after some research, we decided that Medium would be a more sufficient platform for our needs because it serves as a freelance, intellectually-minded mode of communication. We decided to release 1 article for this year’s iteration. Any team can use to Medium to interact, and we hope to form a IGEM section for contributors on iGEM as the platform gains more traction amongst teams.
Because Medium is not used by an extensive number of college students, we were unsure of the exact target audience that we would be reaching out to. In a follow-up discussion with several BILD professors, they suggested that in our article, it would more prudent to leave an open-ended question rather than state our personal beliefs on the topic. This turned out to be very useful information because it actually ensured a more fruitful discussion amongst readers and other contributors.
We posted the article towards the end of summer and received generally positive comments. One area that we greatly suffered was our lack of outside publicity ; we were unable to coordinate a campaign between our social media accounts that could have brought more exposure. It was still a very useful project because it showed how debate can help people gain understanding.
Results and Reflect
We published a blog post discussing the ethics of synthetic biology and how it relates to our project. Our interactions with several readers suggested that we were on the right path, and we want to make this more accessible in the future. Our article garnered more than 600 views during the time when it was up with 77% full read rate. It also helped us clarify general misunderstanding of genetically modified food, a topic that is relevant for most people, and made us realize that in the future, we should not take this sort of knowledge for granted. After making the appropriate modifications to the content, we plan on reposting the article during the Jamboree.
Point 4: FISP Symposium Presentation
We also wanted a chance to spread our knowledge and foster a discussion with a particular group of the UCSD community, namely faculty and other students in the sciences department. In particular, we wanted to show how far UCSD iGEM has come from its initial start in 2014 and how we have much more room to grow in terms of scope and success.
Initially, many of us wanted to host our own science fair, open to the general public, but this idea would be extremely labor-intensive and it would have been to difficult to get other researchers involved, which was our main goal. We learned that every year, the Frontiers of Innovation in Science Program puts on a similar fair where teams that have funding from the program are invited to give a talk or poster presentation about their work. As an all day event, we felt that this was our best course of action because the infrastructure was set up already and it had the most extensive scope of all the actions that we considered.
After signing up for the symposium, our team decided to take a non-traditional approach to preparing for the presentation. Initially, we presented to members of the 2014 UCSD iGEM team who kindly gave advice on the weak points of our presentation. They encouraged us to think of the presentation as a form of storytelling that had natural flow, rather than the typical robotic approach. We also did a number of consultations prior to the FISP presentation and surveyed students in different science fields about what information they thought were most important in a poster presentation and which parts they had the most difficulty in understanding generally.
On October 31st, our team presented at the FISP Symposium alongside almost 115 other students. We received laudatory praise from many of the panel’s members, and they were impressed with the scope of our overall work given the timeframe. In addition, it was an honor to meet with the heads of several scientific enrichment programs including Dr. Artis, who runs all these programs. Below is a picture of some of the team after the FISP Presentation.
Results and Reflect
In our style of presentation, we also wanted to gain feedback on our first version of the poster. It was very helpful for us to see which parts of the poster were easy to understand and follow, and which parts were not. We then went back and revised our poster to form the poster that we will be presenting at this year’s Jamboree. It also gave us invaluable audience fielding questions from a scientific audience and allowed us to start compiling a document of questions that we could anticipate based on our presentation at the FISP Symposium.
Point 5: High School Presentation at San Dieguito Academy
A key component of outreach for any iGEM team is to engage with high school students and get them excited about synthetic biology. Most teams do this through some sort of presentation or discussion; however, our team felt that there had to be a way to have a more direct impact. Some members suggested that we go and give a lecture series at one of the high schools in San Diego. However, we thought that this idea was less feasible because it would be very difficult to align our materials with the course curriculum and might take up too much of their time.
We explored different ways of getting high school students involved, and many of us wanted to do more than just present. Our goal was to get students involved, and so we invited a student from a local high school, Ayse, to shadow us in the lab and help serve as a liaison between the two institutions. We encouraged her to sit in on our daily meetings that revolved around different aspects of the project, including the wet-lab work, computational modelling, and the activities outside of the lab.
Having the perspective of a high school student was very helpful when we began to think about the non-wetlab aspects of the project and how we could approach students who did not really have a background in biology and invite their perspectives. We held extensive discussions in which we identified key aspects of getting through to high school students; again, it echoed what we had found in our student survey on high school biology education in the United States, (1) making it more attentive and attention-grabbing, and (2) simplifying the concepts and then building upon them . We decided that this feedback would be very helpful when it came time to present to the SDA Intro to Biotechnology Class.
When we presented to the Biotech Class, we made sure to emphasize how synthetic biology wasn’t just a career path for those in the biological sciences, but rather something that could impact almost any field. We talked about the concept of BioBricks and how the catalog could be used to confer any specific trait to any organism given the genetic editing tools at our disposal, including CRISPR. Afterwards, we began to discuss the specifics of our project, and decided to talk about it from the point of green energy and bioproduction and how that would be relevant to our everyday lives. We felt that strategy was well-received because it ultimately directed a lot of follow-up questions that really sought to unpack the complexity of our project and was a more progressive way of achieving the dissemination of this information.
Results and Reflect
For this particular category, the only results were that our presentation was very successful and thought-provoking for many students. Another unintended consequence of this presentation was that several students reached out to us afterwards, and asked if high school teams could also participate in iGEM. Using Ayse and the SDA Science Department as our point of contact, we have helped fulfill the preliminary steps of setting up an iGEM team in the San Dieguito Academy and are planning to help them brainstorm over the course of the next several weeks.
Point 6: Using Media Exposure to Build Name Recognition and Excitement about our Project
As our project began to wrap up, we realized that it would be a good idea to start sharing the tale of our summer with the rest of the San Diego community. This was one of the most challenging aspects because although our project was interesting, it would be difficult to establish contacts in the media industry who could help us out. Some of our options included sitting down with the Dean of the Jacobs School of Engineering and discussing our project for the weekly email, or we could try to approach science writers for publications such as the San Diego Tribune.
We did preliminary research into UCSD and off-campus publications and found that the niche audiences were quite different. Therefore, we decided to take a different approach and segment our media exposure into different groups, splitting into on-campus science and non-science publications as well as major off-campus publications. Because we wanted to reach the maximum number of constituents and have an efficient process, we decided to contact the largest undergraduate research journals on campus and local news outlets to see if they would be willing to do a story on our team and our project.
We felt that having the same information for each piece of media exposure would be redundant; instead, we focused on trying to talk about a core issue or a specific piece of our vision for each different interview. After deciding on which publications to talk to, we also decided to do preliminary research on what the readers for each of these publications really wanted to see and tailor something to that particular audience. In addition, we also wanted to emphasize the process of the iGEM competition and our research, rather than just the results.
In the end, we managed to get three publications on board, and here is a summary of what each one discussed.
The UCSD Triton
Undergraduate Research Journal (URJ) at UCSD
The San Diego Tribune
Because this is a common publication across UCSD, it would be accessible to people from many different backgrounds with a variety of majors. Thus, we wanted to give a more generic overview of our project and focus on its implications because that would be more relevant for most readers. In addition, we also talked about the tools that our team used in our integrated human practices and public engagement aspects.
This is a much more research-oriented publication, so we decided to discuss the early stages of protocol design and the use of computational modelling because our audience would appreciate a more technical talk. We went more into depth about the sort of challenges that we faced during the wet lab portion of our project and the future scope of implementation, including a pathway to commercialization and intellectual property provisions. We will be featured in the quarterly release of this journal during late November.
We also decided to engage with the larger San Diego population, and managed to get in contact with one of the science writers. Again, we had to find a fine line between too much technical information and not enough. We decided to focus more on what this means going forward and how our project has the potential to solve a major problem in industrial fermentation processes.
Results and Reflect
We reached a sizable portion of the 36,000 student population at UCSD as a result of our efforts. In addition, we reached a significant portion of the San Diego community based on early metrics from the article. However, there were a number of things that our team could improve: we could also move to radio-based exposure and host a series of podcasts for students and adults alike to learn from. In addition, this interview process was very useful for crafting our final presentation because it gave allowed us to think like individuals who were not necessarily involved with a heavy scientific background.
Point 7: Golden Lab Tours for Transfer Students
TIn addition, we wanted to help foster a passion for synthetic biology in students and get them more involved in research during the school year. We felt that targeting transfer students would be extremely beneficial, because many professors are looking for older transfer students to get involved with research, but many do not know where to begin. In addition, we also wanted to address the concept of lab safety and how crucial proper protocol is for everything that is done in a lab, especially when working with microbial organisms.
We decided that we could help remove a key barrier in helping transfer students get involved in research, namely the unfamiliarity of the lab environment. Therefore, we decided to offer lab tours during the summer and answer safety questions related to research in the Golden Lab. All of our members have completed their safety training, and we felt that it was our duty to convey this information as well.
We talked to several students and found out the key questions that they had when they first starting working at a lab, namely what equipment is used and for what purposes, what organisms the lab works with, and how to perform basic techniques. Keeping this in mind, we began to script our lab tour for different groups of transfer students. We also decided that we would gauge a before-and-after understanding of lab safety in order to determine the effectiveness of our approach.
We offered lab tours to a group of 30 students, many of whom were interested in biological research. The Golden Lab deals with circadian rhythm in cyanobacteria, which is not a very common topic. Many of the student had technical questions and were enthusiastic about trying to learn about how to work with cyanobacteria. In addition, we highlighted several pieces of equipment that the lab uses, and we also found that more 85% of students felt that they had a better understanding of general lab safety after our tour.
Results and Reflect
Although our method was effective, we felt that there was definitely a better way to educate individuals about lab safety. Traditionally, after joining a lab, there is a safety examination and several online safety modules that a student must complete in order to be granted access. We felt that we could improve these modules by integrating virtual reality platforms that would allow students to feel as if they were already within the laboratory and being able to work on specific scenarios without any of the real consequences. Although we cannot unveil this in time for the Giant Jamboree, the UCSD iGEM team is currently building a VR platform that will supplement traditional safety modules. Please come discuss our progress with a team member.
Point 8: Combining Synthetic Biology and Entrepreneurship with the San Diego Venture Capital Summit
Continuing with our dedication to an interdisciplinary approach that involves integrating tools from different fields, we decided that one problem with the current setup of synthetic biology is that too many scientists perform their work in a vacuum. Therefore, we wanted to discuss this issue with entrepreneurs in the life sciences and understand the obstacles that they have to overcome. In addition, we wanted to gain first hand experience as well since we hope to be able to commercialize our ROBUST technology and expand its use in production of valuable biochemical substances.
UCSD has very strong connections to local and regional businesses, and many of the professors that we interacted with for this project were happy to provide contacts in industry. However, we also wanted to get advice from individuals who were involved with the venture capital aspect of businesses. One of our team members is very closely connected to the Basement, an on-campus incubator, and managed to get an invitation to the 2017 San Diego Venture Capital Summit . We thought that this would be an invaluable networking opportunity and to gain any ideas on how to have a scalable mechanism for our company.
Before attending the two-day conference, we decided to do background research about the companies that were going to be present. Although all the companies were startups, we noticed that many of them trended towards the life sciences aspect. We decided that to make the most of this opportunity, it would be helpful to have a sales pitch ready that could briefly summarize the main premises of our research and discuss the broader impact of what we were doing. We also thought that the venture summit would provide a perspective of non scientists, and this could help us with any last minute modifications to the project description to make it more understandable.
Throughout the conference, there were three talks: one on available resources for aspiring entrepreneurs and the basic prerequisites to getting accepted into the BioLabs program by Susie Harborth, another discussion of how technology is transforming life sciences investments by Freestyle Ventures VC Lucian Iancovici, and a discussion of how to gain Series A funding from investors and the practical criteria for becoming a successful startup.
Afterwards, we were invited to pitch our idea to a panel of venture capitalists; although we were not asking for money, we wanted to see what the main flaws in our proposal was. The biggest reason for hesitation was the lack of scalability and high initial startup cost. Instead, many of the VCs suggested that a new trend in bio-manufacturing was slim, lean operations with flexibility in contrast to the conventional, heavy-use facilities.
Results and Reflect
After talking to all three of the speakers above and having a brief discussion with keynote speaker and Google Ventures leader Bill Maris, we decided to take the next step in trying to commercialize our technology. We were also able to talk to the founders of 5 biology-based companies who were able to help us modify our existing business idea. Please check out the Entrepreneurship section of the website.
The bi-directional dialogue occurred after the conference had ended and we were invited to talk to all the individuals mentioned above. Our initial pitch centered around the idea that we could implement a contamination-free system at a fraction of existing cost factors. While this was appealing, the business model needed work and inspired us to come up with a business plan that relies on commercialization of the SynEco technology.