For scientists, having an impact on society can be really hard. Mainly due to the lack of scientific communication, the broad public can’t understand what scientists do in the lab. iGEM opens doors for making a real impact on communities, sharing knowledge and raising awareness about synthetic biology. We wanted to use this opportunity to make a change!
The possibilities of how to achieve such a goal are incredibly broad, we started brainstorming to narrow them down based on our knowledge and limitations. We finally decided to focus mainly on the youth, children aged 6 to 12. At the same time, we decided to create some additional material for teenagers and older audiences that would like to know what is the idea behind synthetic biology; by using real-life samples. Follow-up activities are proposed to not only learn the concepts but also apply them.
The biggest gap between the general public and scientists is created when heavy scientific terminology is used. In that sense, we strongly believe that making science accessible can only be possible by making it entertaining and easily understandable.
That is what motivated us to create a series of comics that could explain the principle idea behind synthetic biology in a simple manner. We first came up with characters inspired by actual microorganisms and their background stories, so that children's interest will be obtained. After each chapter, the science behind the protagonist of the chapter and its importance in synthetic biology is explained in a simple manner. After using our materials, we have found out that not only children were interested in the stories, but that the comics also helped adults with no scientific background to look at synthetic biology from a different perspective.
Our education team consists of students from different fields, from science to design. This allowed us to find the middle ground between scientific rigorously and understandability.
The materials are accessible online, additionally, we also contacted schools from all over Europe. Eventually, more than 270 kids from 4 different countries cover the comics and preformed the activities in the classroom. Cultural institutions and online platforms that spread scientific knowledge were also contacted. This way we tried to ensure that more people could have access to science. By providing society with real-life examples of synthetic biology and stepping away from the sensationalism that characterizes social media and traditional press, we wanted to empower people to create informed opinions about synthetic biology.
Essentially, our materials can be divided into two areas, a comic addressed to children from 6-12, and the explanation of the science behind the comic, targeting a broader audience. Additionally, the materials can be found mainly in English, Dutch, Croatian and Bulgarian.
We linked the comics to our project by making all the stories happen in a farm. The trigger of the comic is that the farmer has gone on vacation and a crew of different microorganisms are left in charge of the farm. The comic strips include six different types of microorganisms as the main characters. All the stories follow the same plot, the microorganisms are faced with a problem and only one of them has the right “superpower” to solve it. That microorganism then shares its “superpower” with the other microorganisms and they then solve the problem together. All the superpowers are inspired by the actual characteristics of microorganisms and the act of sharing the superpowers is inspired by the fundamental principle behind synthetic biology.
In the chapters, we focus on bioluminescence by bacteria, fermentation by yeast and spore formation by spore-forming bacteria. With these examples, we aim to use real life biological features from actual microorganisms and make them relevant into a story.
The different chapters and introduction of the characters can be found below:
Family name: Saccharomyces cerevisiae
Hobbies: Nobody can cook better and faster than Musoke. She is a specialist in baking bread, making wine, beer and cheese. Most importantly, she is a really humble and trustworthy friend.
Favourite food: Homemade pizza
Residence/Origin: She was born in a mango tree, but lived in many fruit plants (she loves the sugars on them) until she moved to the farm.
Superpower: She can bake bread very fast.
Family name: Penicillium chrysogenum
Hobbies: If you want to have fun, call Armin, he will always make you laugh. Although sometimes he can be a bit clumsy and slow, he is very loyal and will always stick to his promises.
Favourite food: Salty biscuits, salty popcorn and basically anything with salt on it.
Residence/Origin: Born in a water plant in Iran, he came to the Netherlands looking for a more watery environment.
Superpower: Armin has sticky proteins surrounding his body, that is how he stands up.
Family name: Bacillus subtilis
Hobbies: Javi is all about the underground music scene.
Favourite food: Potatoes, carrots, and anything grown underground.
Residence/Origin: He’s been all over the world and every place feels like home to him.
Superpower: Javi can produce medicines.
Family name: Vibrio harveyi
Hobbies: Mark is passionate about fishing and there is no fish too big for him to catch.
Favourite food: Seafood
Residence/Origin: He was born in the Caribbean Sea where he lived inside of different fish species.
Superpower: Mark is bioluminescent, he can shine in the dark!
Family name: Clostridiaceae
Profession: Marketing agency manager
Hobbies: When the environment is hostile and everything gets tough, it’s time for Marilyn to show her power by making spores. She is strong and resilient, as well as very opportunistic.
Favourite food: Potatoes, carrots, and anything grown underground.
Residence/Origin: He’s been all over the world and every place feels like home to him.
Superpower: Marylin can produce spores to survive difficult times.
Family name: Amoeba Proteus family
Profession: Micro-Olympic swimmer
Hobbies: Yuli is super competitive and loves spending her free time doing sports. Her favourite sports include yoga and surfing.
Favourite food: Other amoebae and algae
Residence/Origin: Thingvallavatn lake in Iceland.
Superpower:Yuli can move really smoothly and she is the best swimmer.
The science behind the comic
Accompanying the introduction and the chapters of the comic, a series of what we have called the Science Behind the Comic comes into play. By creating this we aim to provide the reader with information about the feature that the organism is using and an example of it significance in the world of synthetic biology. The thinking scheme we follow introduces the reader to the concepts smoothly by providing simple and entertaining stories (comic chapters). Then, once the general idea is presented, biological explanations of the features and more detailed samples are given. Introducing the reader gently to the difficult concepts ensures engagement and comprehensibility of the message that we want to deliver.
We used the “Introduction to the Science Behind the Comic” to introduce to the reader the basics of synthetic biology, iGEM and our team. In the rest of the “Science Behind the Comic” we focus on explaining the concept presented in the comic chapters, bioluminescence, fermentation and spore-forming,,,.
“Science Behind the comic” can be found below:
All the materials can be reachable easily from the landing page of the comic.
Designing a distribution strategy is important in order to be able to spread the materials to more people. As we were focusing mainly on primary schools we made a contact list of local elementary schools and BSOs (outside-school care), as well as non-local schools. We then prepared an e-mail script in which we clearly explained who we were, what we created and how to implement it. Standardizing the process helped us to contact as many schools as possible and be consistent with the information that we provide.
While contacting, we always made sure that we were clear and honest in our intentions and that we were open to suggestions, questions and criticisms. Children are vulnerable subjects and we ensured we were not violating their rights and privacy by providing them with accurate information. We ensured that the teachers that implemented our materials understood the concepts that we wanted to educate about. Thanks to the work of our human practice team, we learnt how to treat sensitive data, so that schools or individual children can not be identifiable.
The e-mail template that we used to contact schools and BSOs can be found in the figure below:
Additionally, we also contacted cultural and scientific institutions that shared the philosophy of making science understandable to everyone. We try to reach out to different institutions like museums, cultural centers and online and physical science communication platforms.
Not only did we create the materials that explained the concept of synthetic biology in a comprehensible manner, but we also produced a guideline that explains how to implement them in schools. We believe that active learning is more effective and helps to find the flaws in the materials by pinpointing the ideas that weren’t understood. This way, students are experientially involved in the learning process, this gives them more responsibility and motivation, by being the person in charge of the results of the process.
When contacting schools we were aware of the difficulties that we were going to face in terms of explaining the principle behind synthetic biology to teachers. We developed an implementation pipeline explaining the main content of our materials and how to work with them, it can be found in Figure 2. All the additional activities proposed can be read in Figures 3, 4 and 5.
This also provided us with a way of receiving feedback based on evidence depending on how the children react to the activities.
When we were preparing the implementation proposal it was hard to picture how the setting would be in an actual classroom, as it is sometimes difficult to go from theory to practice. Some of the teachers that we were in contact with helped us put our ideas into practice and make them suitable for a classroom setting. Feedback from professionals that were implementing the materials was extremely valuable, we thank everyone that helped us.
We profit from the online environment and the internationality of our team to spread the materials over Europe. The comics were presented in schools in Croatia, Spain, the Netherlands and Bulgaria. Although we provided the teachers with some suggestions on how to implement the materials, some of them also came up with new nice innovative ways of using them.
Audience: after-school care in Delft (7 children aged 6-10), One elementary schools in Groningen (10 children). Another elementary school in Assen is going to implement the materials in the week of the 25th of October and feedback will be uploaded after the Giant Jamboree. 45 children (aged 10-11) will read the comics.
Overall impression: The children were able to follow the comic and were enthusiastic about it.
Feedback from the person implementing the material: Due to the introduction of the character, they seemed to feel connected to the main character. The pictures of the real-life examples gave them more insight into what the comic was about. Thanks to the example of jellyfish (which they knew already), they were able to better understand how bacteria could glow up. We were told that "losing the ball" in the first chapter of the comic did not get them really thrilled. Instead, it was suggested that a character should be in danger, as this might create more emotions in children. However, they still said they really enjoyed the story.
Audience: one elementary school in Zagreb (119 children aged 6-11).
Overall impression: The children really enjoyed the activities.
Feedback from teachers: The comics are somehow more interesting to children than the traditional teaching materials and they really enjoyed them. They did all three activities.
Audience: one elementary school in Navarra (20 children aged 8).
Overall impression: In general terms, the project was really nice. The world of microorganisms is not normally covered in elementary school and introducing the students to it through these comics raises their interest.
Feedback from teacher: Although it is not easy to understand the world of microorganisms at such an early age, the proposed characters have made the students interested in knowing their superpowers and thus learn a little more about them. The places of birth, the favourite food and the powers have been what most caught the attention of the children. On the contrary, the family names are very complicated for this age group and that the character of Marilyn has not been understood by them, that's why she has not been represented in any comic book. The activity of the comic has been very successful because the students have developed their creativity while they have put into practice what they have learned. They have been guided by the teacher because the language is an added difficulty (the materials were covered in English while the native language of the children is Spanish).
Regarding activity 1, the introductory activity, to make it more attractive the teacher has developed a Kahoot that they have done in pairs in the computer room. The activity was very successful, as can be seen in the Excel file sent to the project organizers. Regarding activity 2, the students have come up with innovative ideas on how to solve the problem. As a teacher, I would have liked to have more time. Finally, and as an improvement, I think that Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) could have been used, for example, presenting digital activities, with online games (not only with PowerPoint and PDF) and also the activities could have been adapted by age. I would like to end by thanking the scientific organizers of the project for remembering the world of education, and especially the children of Primary Education.
Audience: Elementary school in Sofia (76 children aged 6-10)
Overall impression: The children found it very interesting and engaging, they were very enthusiastic about it.
Feedback from teacher: The teacher made a change on the implementation, she divided them in smaller groups, they came up with a story which they presented to their peers.
Besides the direct contact with schools. In our attempt to reach out to cultural institutions, we had a successful contact with the Forum, a cultural center in the city of Groningen. In this building different cultural activities are displayed; cinema, library, café bar, exhibitions, etc. Additionally, there is a department dedicated to children where activities addressed to them are held. In total 5 A3 posters of the introduction of the characters and the comic chapters are displayed in that space, the posters are allocated in a way that the viewer needs to look for the next poster within the area. In each poster, the corresponding Science Behind the Comic is also accessible via a QR code so that phone-user visitors can also reach it easily. The Forum has an expected 1.6 million visitors a year. The Forum can be seen in Figure 7.
In an attempt to make the exhibition more interactive, visitors of the Forum exhibition are challenged to create a comic with a character of their choice. Children were invited to pick one template of a comic in which one of the microorganisms was the protagonist and send it to us. To implement that, handouts (Figure 8.) were available to the public. The most original one will be awarded a 3D printed character of their selection. We will update more on this after the wiki freeze!
We have summed up the main points highlighted by the people that have been able to implement the materials:
- Introduction of the characters: This helps the children to get attached to the different protagonists of the stories.
- Triggering of the chapters: To raise children’s interest and engagement it would be nice to do it more thrillingly, as losing the ball didn’t catch everyone's attention.
- Level of the content: Make it more specific for ages according to the level of the students, as for the 6 years all the material was a bit hard to understand.
- Suggestions to improve children's involvement: Examples from real-life, presenting something that they are familiar with and adding new examples. Make it more interactive.
Combining the valuable feedback provided after the implementation of the materials in more than 200 kids and our own experience during this iGEM season we learnt valuable lessons and there are mainly two points that we would like to improve.
The human practice’s team contacted us suggesting that we could create a comic that talks about safety. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time for that but we liked the idea and it would be something to do in the future. By using comics to teach about a topic we found out that it came across as a nice way of presenting complex information in a simple and understandable manner. Safety is one of the main concerns when working with GMOs, not only for scientists but also for the broad public. Creating a series of comics as we did but with safety concerns will help raise awareness of the precautions that need to be and are taken when working with GMOs.
By getting a closer look at the results of activity 3 (design your own comic) we realized that the idea behind the comic was sometimes clear for students, but not always. Therefore it would be nice to provide teachers with a small presentation on what synthetic biology is (in a few words) so that the idea becomes clear. Additionally, adapting the content to each situation would help to make the content more accessible.
One important aspect while making a project is to talk about it. We spread the world locally and internationally through different channels.
- Legras, J.-L., Merdinoglu, D., Cornuet, J.-M., & Karst, F. (2007). Bread, beer and wine: Saccharomyces cerevisiae diversity reflects human history. Molecular Ecology, 16, 2091–2102. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-294X.2007.03266.x
- Denby, C.M., Li, R.A., Vu, V.T. et al. Industrial brewing yeast engineered for the production of primary flavor determinants in hopped beer. Nat Commun 9, 965 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-018-03293-x
- Isticato, R., Cangiano, G., Tran, H. T., Ciabattini, † Annalisa, Medaglini, D., Oggioni, M. R., de Felice, M., Pozzi, G., & Ricca, E. (2001). Surface Display of Recombinant Proteins on Bacillus subtilis Spores. JOURNAL OF BACTERIOLOGY, 183(21), 6294–6301. https://doi.org/10.1128/JB.183.21.6294-6301.2001
- García-Peñalvo, F. J., Alarcón, H., & Domínguez, Á. (2019). Active learning experiences in Engineering Education. International Journal of Engineering Education, 35(1(B)), 305-309.