This year, we launched our Pilot Competition, Biologix, to create a space where students with diverse identities are not limited by socio-economic barriers but instead encouraged to learn, participate and be creative.
We at Renervate Therapeutics, strongly believe that everyone is allowed to have a voice in synthetic biology and science. We sincerely hope that we can motivate and inspire other iGEM teams, to either collaborate or develop their own initiatives, to widen participation in STEM. If you would like to learn more about how we launched Biologix, please see our Education Page.
Our institution, King’s College London (KCL), greatly values the delivery of widening participation outreach programmes. They have founded initiatives, such as K+ and the Sutton Trust, which primarily focus on offering students opportunities and experience in a tertiary education setting.
We were deeply motivated to develop our own outreach programme, tailored to informing students from different backgrounds on Synthetic Biology. Since most widening participation schemes typically focus on developing general access and participation plans, we wanted to encourage creativity, independent learning and appreciation for Synthetic Biology. Especially with it not being a standardised component of school’s curriculum.
After conversations with the Widening Participation team at King’s College London, we understood the impact of different barriers in STEM and tailored our competition towards increasing the inclusivity and accessibility of our competition.
We first discussed potential barriers to widening participation in STEM with Professor Steve Thompson, who spearheads the King’s College London (KCL) Extended Medical Degree Programme and is Widening Participation lead for King’s Health Partners. From our conversation, he suggested that we incorporate values such as confidence building, communication, presentation and networking. He also encouraged us to take inspiration from the ethos of the KCL Extended Medical Degree Programme, ‘changing mindsets and inspiring students’. In setting a clear motivation for our competition, we could ascertain that our participants feel included and safe in our community.
Furthermore, we discussed the limitations of hosting an online competition, as some students may be limited in their access to laptops and other equipment. He suggested in the future, we work together with the schools to see whether they could support our participants with the relevant technological equipment.
We discussed Inclusivity and diversity with Katharine Morgan, who works with the Widening Participation team at KCL to deliver Outreach Programmes for students interested in medicine or dentistry. Since KCL is based in South-East London, we decided to initially target boroughs including Southwark, Lambeth, Westminster and Tower Hamlets and Katharine was able to promote our competition amongst her target audience for the outreach programmes hosted by KCL.
During our conversation, we discussed how participants who often don’t have a role model to encourage them to pursue opportunities in tertiary education can be supported by exposing them to our experiences and stories from university. For this reason, we organised a drop-in session to ensure our participants had the opportunity to ask questions and clarify any queries they may have surrounding university life and studying STEM subjects. Furthermore, she suggested we schedule our lectures in the afternoon and recommended we record them to ensure our participants were able to access them whenever they please.
Through our integrated human practices, we were able to develop an inclusive design for our pilot competition Biologix.
The aims of our competition included increasing the reach of synthetic biology and encouraging participation in tertiary education. Due to COVID regulations and to increase accessibility, we decided to do it online. However, there are draw-backs to running an online competition as it is a lot harder to interact with the students and to retain their attention during the entire duration of the lectures.
We decided to provide the participants with a central website which they could sign up on, this contained the competition dates, competition deliverables and other resources. We also made sure that the website was available on all devices. In terms of targeting participants, Katharine Morgan agreed to act as a bridge between us and schools in our target region, with a particular emphasis on areas with the lowest participation rates in tertiary education. As we were running an online competition, we decided to target not only local but also international schools in order to increase participation, but due to differing time zones, not everyone would be able to access the live lectures at the same time; therefore, we recorded all of our lectures and uploaded them onto the website.
During our lectures, we made sure to increase participation following the advice from Professor Steve Thompson by adding interactive elements including Kahoot quizzes and YouTube videos. We also decided to include live Q&A’s, which gave them an opportunity to ask any questions that they may have about the lecture. During the lectures, we also shared our personal experiences of tertiary education in order to promote participation in the future. This was also assisted by a lecture presented by Katharine Morgan, which explained how to write up an effective personal statement. Overall, through our competition, we developed new opportunities for students to have a voice in synthetic biology and also to enourage their participation in tertiary education.
For our future improvements, we would want to implement our competition both in-person and remote to limit the impact of a technological divide on our participants. Additionally, we would want to run our competition during the school year, this would ensure our students are supported by their teachers and other relevant school staff.
In parallel to developing our educational outreach programme, we conducted research into the accessibility and resources available to individuals presenting with SCI. We identified that employment rates among individuals with SCI is significantly lower than the general population, with the average rate of paid employment after SCI being 35% compared to 77%, in the US population without disabilities (Ottomanelli and Lind, 2009).
Furthermore, we assessed the accessibility of SCI treatment in the UK and understood that between one half to one third of people are able to access specialist care under the NHS. In order to understand the general landscape around benefits and opportunities for individuals with SCI, we also reviewed different non-profit organisations to assess the services they provided. We discovered that Aspire, a national Charity based in the UK, offered a number of services including welfare benefits advice, supporting independent living and offering temporary disability housing.
We presented our findings throughout SCI awareness month, in hopes to encourage open dialogue within our audience on the current climate of accessibility for people presenting with SCI. You can learn more about our science communication work here.