Every summer, the William & Mary School of Education hosts a summer camp for local middle school students to learn STEM, do hands-on activities, and think about college opportunities and possible careers. The W&M iGEM team has collaborated with the School of Education in the past to do teaching activities with students, so we reached out and invited students and teachers from the camp to visit our lab.
Since we were working with a community partner, we wanted our goals for the event to reflect theirs. The head of the program emphasized that we should try to get students interested in the field of molecular biology and participating in research in college. Therefore, we approached the event with these goals in mind.
Prior to the event, we met with and received feedback on our preliminary plan from the teacher, Deanna Marroletti, who was a teacher in charge of the group of students visiting our lab. We learned that the original activities that we had planned were too simplistic for the group. Although the students were in middle school, they were already knowledgeable about the field of biology. Based on her suggestions, we chose three activities to do with the students: a strawberry DNA extraction, gel electrophoresis, and streaking plates with E. coli expressing RFP. While the DNA extraction activity is quite simple, we started with this in order to get everyone in the group to a minimum level of knowledge about the properties of DNA and how scientists use it in a lab. For the gel electrophoresis activity, we made up a scenario and created different DNA samples for students to test via gel electrophoresis (and solve the crime!). During this activity, we talked about lab techniques and how different kinds of researchers can work with DNA in the lab. Lastly, we did the RFP activity from our high school activity booklet and talked about synthetic biology and lab techniques.
Two groups of 15 students (30 total) each visited our lab for two and a half hours. All the activities went smoothly, and the students seemed to enjoy the themselves and were eager to answer the questions we asked them about why scientists use the techniques in the lab. The only issue we ran into was that the RFP activity was meant to take half an hour, but it only took about 15 minutes. Luckily the students were interested in the equipment in our lab, so we were able to take the extra time to answer their questions about that.
Overall, the event went well. Students were very interested in the lab techniques and enthusiastic to learn more about synthetic biology. We received the following written feedback from Ms. Marroletti after the event:
“First, the kids absolutely LOVED visiting the lab, and very quickly felt welcome there. The activities were excellent, engaging and meaningful. I liked that you provided all the materials and instructions, and had the kids follow along, while you and the team circulated. That helped get them acclimated to the lab in a way that gave them responsibility for the steps involved.
The gels are much more complicated, but putting it into a problem scenario made it fun and relevant. I think they really enjoyed the process and all the attention they got from the team. It was nice to hear you all sharing even more information, as appropriate, when interacting with students who have more foundational awareness.
Letting them plate some bacteria was a treat. I will share those with them this week. The only thing I can think of to mention as a point of growth is to know your purpose when engaging an audience. The activities are interesting and fun, but it's important to know what you want the students to come away with. In this case, no problem--we want them to come away loving our college labs and eager to come back as an undergraduate. In that effort, it was incredibly successful."
Additionally, ten students visited our lab during their free time two days later because they said they thought our research very interesting and they wanted to learn more about synthetic biology and being a student researcher.
RFP Art Activity Protocol from our Activities Booklet
As part of our interest in getting students interested in the field of synthetic biology, we decided to reach out the Girl Scouts of the Colonial Coast (GSCC) to organize an event to teach girls about this subject. We contacted Jacqueline Brooks, the Events Manager from GSCC, to see whether the organization would be interested in such event and what they would like to get out of it. Jacqueline was enthusiastic about our offer and told us they wanted to get more girls involved in STEM, particularly in engineering. Over the course of the next few months, we worked together to organize the event and publicize it. We planned to have the event run from 9:00 to 12:00 in the Integrated Science Center at William & Mary. Jacqueline handled contacting participants and getting people enrolled in the event, while we organized the activities, program, and event volunteers. There was a total enrollment of about 75 Girl Scouts and about 20 parents. We organized the event so we could split the girls into 5 groups based on age, and each group was led by a member of the iGEM team and two other student volunteers. We made our program of activities by starting with concepts from engineering and then showing how we can apply them to biology. Below was our schedule for the day:
8:45-9:00: Check in, distribute name tags, and have parents sign photo release forms for their girls.
9:00-9:15: Presentation in the auditorium. Introduce synthetic biology and the program for the day, and then split the girls into five groups based on their grade level.
9:20-9:50: Circuit Design: Students practiced designing simple electrical circuits, and how adjusting different parts of the circuit can have an effect on the output (a green LED). We later discussed how parts of the circuit are (or are not) analogous to parts of a gene.
9:50-10:10: Twizzler DNA: Students learned about the structure and role of DNA by building it out of candy.
10:10-10:30: Lego Genes: We presented the scenario of having a high concentration of lead present in our drinking water. Students had to think about how to build a biological circuit (combining the idea of the electrical circuit and DNA) that could be used to address the problem. Students worked with Legos as a way to visualize the different components of a gene, such as the promoter, RBS, protein-coding region, and double terminator.
10:30-11:00: Gel Electrophoresis: Students learned about the lab techniques that enable scientists to create something like a biological circuit. We helped students run gels using dyes and discussed the role of gel electrophoresis in a synthetic biology lab.
11:00-11:30: DNA Extraction/Streaking Plates: While the gels were running, the younger students conducted a strawberry and banana DNA extraction to actually visualize the DNA and discuss the possible differences between genetic material from different organisms. Older students learned how to streak plates and discussed why scientists use antibiotics, how bacteria grow, and how engineered plasmids are able to get inside the bacteria.
11:30-11:45: Analyze Gels: Students looked at their gels and saw how the dyes separated.
11:45-12:00: Closing remarks and distribution of event badges.
Most of the girls seemed to enjoy the event, and almost all of them at the end said they had learned more about synthetic biology. The student volunteers really enjoyed working with the girls and having the opportunity to teach them about synthetic biology. Jacqueline gave us this feedback:
Qualitative data from debriefs after the event:
“The girls absolutely loved it! The parents were happy with the event as well. The only item of concern was to make sure we plan this event on a day when there isn’t a lot going on at the same time. We had a few parents lost after the event was completed because there were so many people in the area (we can tweak the dismissal part of the event). All in all it seems we would love to have this event again!”
-Jacqueline Brooks, our collaborator from GSCC.
Feedback from student volunteers about what worked well:
“From my perspective, the Girl Scouts outreach event was a success. The girls seemed to enjoy it and learn a lot. The candy DNA was definitely a positive inclusion as a pick-me-up in the middle of the event. The strawberry DNA extraction was great too - it was easy to follow and worked like a charm.”
“The more hands-on the activity, the better. [The girls] really liked the gel electrophoresis, Twizzler DNA, and plate streak. Anything colorful or sciencey seemed preferred over the more abstract activities.”
Feedback from the student volunteers for how to improve the event in the future:
“I was confused by the Lego activity since it’s supposed to be an abstract parallel to standard gene components and when the girls had to build a gene out of the lego bricks, it became a little bit boring and made the girls get lost if one didn’t have a good understanding of how genetics works but just followed the instructions to put different colored brick together... I can imagine it would be fun if we have a more complicated topography, like a module of design, maybe build a logic gate or switch, and ask them to draw out what they get and predict what will happen, but it would be a very intellectual activity.”
“In the future, I think focusing on easier activities (e.g. the LEGO genes and circuits weren’t easy to explain in simple terms) would result in a more positive experience. I also think the event would benefit from more variance in activities between middle school and high school students.”
Gel Electrophoresis Activity Protocol from our Activities Booklet
Twizzler DNA Activitiy Protocol from our Activities Booklet
Raising Awareness: Engaging with the “Focusing on the Future” Event
The School of Education at our college runs an annual career fair called Focusing on the Future for middle school students who are interested in careers in STEM. After connecting with Dr. Kim, the director of pre-collegiate programs in the Center for Gifted Education, invited members of our team to give a presentation at this event.
We prepared a short presentation about synthetic biology and how to get ready for a career in science. We also prepared a hands-on recombinant DNA activity for the students to have them think about synthetic biology. The activity can be found in our high school activity booklet.
While we had fun at the event, we were expecting an audience of 8th graders and parents, so we planned with that audience in mind. The audience ended up being mostly 7th and 8th graders and there were no parents. The students all seemed to have varying levels of biology background, as well, so both the presentation and activity were too difficult for some of the students present. If we were to do this event a second time, we would choose an activity that could have been more accessible to a wider audience.
Transformation Activity Protocol from our Activities Booklet
Creating Research Opportunities for High School Students: Collaboration with Biology Club
The Biology Club at William & Mary recently reached out to us about acting as a resource for students interested in doing synthetic biology research. For the first time, members of the club will be conducting supervised biology research projects in the areas of Neuroscience, Bioengineering, and Microbiology. Much of the research is going to be conducted in our lab, so the head of the club asked us if we could organize an activity for students to help them learn about lab equipment. We had students visit the lab and do an activity where they explored the lab and guessed which equipment they would need for their projects. It was fun to connect with students.
It was particularly exciting to collaborate with the Biology Club, however, because we discovered that this year their organization includes members who are in the STEM Club at Lafayette High School. Because a from this club student was the person who reached out to the Biology Club, this was not a widely-known resource among other students and teachers in the area. Therefore, we invited the heads of the club to present to our teacher focus group to expand the reach of their club to various local high schools.
Conversations with Legislators
Over the course of the past year, we have been lucky to have had the opportunity to show Virginia national and state legislators around our lab and increase their awareness and knowledge of the field of synthetic biology, so they can make more informed decisions on policy. Additionally, since we go to a public university, we felt it was important for our state senators to have a better understanding of our research.
Representative Scott Taylor visited the Bioengineering Lab on April 24, 2017. Representative Taylor is the United States Representative for Virginia's 2nd Congressional District, which encompasses counties near the College of William & Mary. We talked to Representative Taylor about the importance of the research that occurs at William & Mary, both for our area of Virginia and nationally.
Virginia Senator Dick Saslaw serves as a member of the Senate Subcommittee on Higher Education and on the Finance Committee, specifically on the Education Subcommittee. Senator Saslaw visited the Bioengineering Lab on May 31, 2017. Two members of our team talked to him about synthetic biology and our iGEM project.
On May 31, 2017, Virginia Senator Janet Howell visited the William & Mary Bioengineering Lab and talked to members of the iGEM team about science research at William & Mary. Senator Howell also serves on the Education Finance Subcommittee in the Virginia Senate.
On July 10, 2017, Virginia Senator Monty Mason visited the Bioengineering Lab to learn more about the research opportunities at William & Mary. Our team introduced the field of synthetic biology and our iGEM project. Senator Mason's congressional district includes Williamsburg and the College of William & Mary, so the iGEM team was excited to talk to him about the scientific research that occurs here and discuss our education outreach with local public school students. His interest in the resources we could provide to educators and students ended up leading to a longer-term collaboration
It was exciting to act as representatives of our college and talk to legislators. Meeting with Senator Mason and hearing his enthusiasm about our education outreach led us to more seriously consider how we could work with representatives of our community to address their needs.
Making Connections Across the W&M Science Community: Bioengineering Speaker Series
Although there is synthetic biology research at the College of William & Mary, there currently exists no engineering or bioengineering program. Toward the beginning of our iGEM project, a professor from the Department of Applied Science, who does research on the physical and chemical properties of spider silk for potential synthetic biology applications, met with our PI and was curious about our team’s research. After meeting with him and talking to him about his research, we realized that there are many professors who do research involving synthetic biology and bioengineering that are not connected because they are in different departments. As part of our outreach within our college community, we organized a Bioengineering Speaker Series during the summer for student researchers, professors, and anyone who was interested in learning more about synthetic biology research. We were lucky to host three speakers from the Department of Applied Science and the Biology Department. Each talk was presented at a suitable level for a general audience and was followed by a discussion with the audience. The fact that the audience was from diverse backgrounds of biology, chemistry, and physics led to rich discussions. Although we initially wanted to record the lectures and make them publicly accessible, we felt that in order to create an environment that could foster discussion between students and professors, it would be better to make it as informal as possible. Across the three events, we reached about 95 people. We are continuing the series this fall due to the positive feedback we got from students and professors. We are presenting our own research in early November, and Professor Myriam Cotten from the Department of Applied Science is presenting her research in late November.
Informing the University and Local Community about our iGEM Project: Project Description Video
Toward the beginning of our project, we publicized our research using a brief, three-paragraph project description. Since our audience included people with varying levels of biology and scientific background, we received mixed feedback on this method. Some people said they understood the research description and they liked the presentation format but others told us that they found it very confusing. Based on this feedback, our team decided to create explanatory materials that were simple, concise, and understandable as a way of explaining our iGEM research to someone with a high school biology background.
We felt that the best format for making an accessible explanation would be a video. In order to accomplish this goal, we collaborated with a high school student to create and edit the video script. In order to make this most useful in the context of Virginia Public Schools, we adapted the materials to respond to Virginia’s state Standards of Learning for high school biology students. This ensured that we did not include information that a high schooler in our state would not yet know, as well as aligning the materials to the incentive structure of teachers within the public school system.
After finalizing the script and creating a storyboard for the video, we filmed the drawings, recorded a voiceover, and edited both. We published the video on the W&M iGEM social media accounts, as well as YouTube, and reached about 750 people from these platforms alone. The video also plays on a TV screen outside of our lab, so we have reached many students, professors, and visitors this way.
Our team received a lot of feedback on this video, both online and in person. Everyone who talked to us expressed that the video was an understandable explanation of our project, so we feel that we have accomplished the main goal of producing materials that would be understandable to a general audience with a high school biology education. Often, people stop outside of our lab to watch the video and become interested in talking to our team more about iGEM and our iGEM project, so the video has also had the added benefit of informing members of our college community about the research we do.
Project Description Video
Connecting with the Scientific Community: Capital Area BioSpace Project Presentation
At the Mid-Atlantic Meetup, we met Richard Conroy, the treasurer of Capital Area BioSpace.He kindly invited us to come give a presentation about our research and synthetic biology at a meetup for members of his lab and the general public.
Two members of our team traveled to Reston, Virginia, to give the presentation. We presented on biological circuits and our past iGEM projects. We also led a short activity on ethics and GE mosquitoes, originally from BostonU iGEM, which we found using our database.
The meetup attracted an audience with diverse scientific backgrounds. Some of those present did biology research; others had backgrounds in engineering and computer science. Many of the members of the audience had not studied biology past high school but had strong science and math backgrounds. It was interesting to give a presentation to such an informed and diverse audience. We ended up focusing more on the biomath and engineering aspects of synthetic biology than we had expected because the audience directed their questions to those areas of our work. We learned a lot from the scientists in the audience who offered great interdisciplinary insights on our project. At the end, we administered a short survey to get feedback on the activity. For the open-ended questions, we coded responses post-survey.
Program Evaluation Survey
BostonU GE Mosquito Bioethics Activity
Event Feedback Data:
Increasing Awareness of iGEM Activities: Meeting with the Boyle Society
On April 29th, members of the Boyle Society visited the William & Mary Bioengineering Lab, home to our iGEM team. The Boyle Society is a charitable giving society that has an impact on the funding for scientific research at our college. Our goals for the event were to present our iGEM project, teach participants about molecular and synthetic biology, and impress upon participants the importance of the scientific research that occurs at William & Mary.
Two groups of 25 participants (50 total) each visited the lab for half an hour. We briefly presented iGEM, our project, synthetic biology, and conducted a strawberry DNA extraction activity.
We received generally positive feedback from the participants; many said they were interested in science research at the College and enjoyed being able to do a hands-on activity with us. From our observations, it seemed that we chose the correct technical level of activity for most of the participants. Although we were working with adults, most participants had little to no science background. This meant that we had to adjust our level of explanation for both the activity and our iGEM project. Most of the participants who gave us feedback said that they did not entirely understand the science behind our research but found it to be interesting.
The outreach event went well as we addressed the three goals that we had set for the event. Since it was the first outreach event hosted by the 2017 team, however, there were some organizational challenges. In response, we created an adapted strawberry DNA extraction protocol based on our experience for what worked and what did not. We also made a checklist for how to prepare for the activity that we used in future outreach projects.
Strawberry DNA Extraction Activity Protocol
Connecting with the Scientific Community: Women Building Bio
Dr. Saha, our PI, and several members of our iGEM team were invited to be part of a student panel called “Next Generation Inspiration: David vs. Goliath of Synthetic Biology” at the Women Building Bio conference. During the event, we talked about doing synthetic biology research as undergraduates and the outreach that we do through the iGEM program. It was fun to talk to women in the Biosciences industry from across the state, and it was an honor to be included as speakers at this event. Many of the attendees were curious to learn more about our research, and it was also very exciting to connect with women who do research in similar fields.
Collaboration, Networking, and Peer Learning: Participating in the Regional iGEM Meetup
We attended the Mid-Atlantic Meetup hosted by the UVA iGEM team and presented our preliminary research. We enjoyed talking to other teams about their research and getting feedback on our project. At the meetup, we met the UMD iGEM team, which helped us initiate a valuable collaboration.