Team:KU Leuven/Communication

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BLADEN Education & Communication



Science is all about gaining insights into the world around us and using that knowledge to make it a better place for everyone. That is why scientific outreach, bringing science closer to the people, is a very important aspect for us. Given the COVID-19 pandemic and the effect it has had on student’s lives and education; outreach has been more important than ever to find alternative, often online approaches, to reach and inspire kids with science. Therefore:

  • We developed and distributed science boxes to engage primary school children with science
  • We developed and performed a workshop about DNA at Children’s University
  • We developed a city game that explains the history of DNA to children.
  • We developed the Synbio Challenge, teaching high schoolers about CRIPSR-Cas
  • We developed and published a video series explaining basic biotech
  • We taught high schoolers about synthetic biology
  • We organized a debate about synthetic biology with Ethics@Arenberg

Science box

Despite the global COVID-19 pandemic, we wanted to inspire and excite the next generation of young scientists. To this end, the Science Box was developed; a box filled with all the required materials, safety equipment and instructions for a series of fun experiments covering topics in physics, chemistry and biology. While there were originally 10 experiments; grow your own bacteria, grow your own fungi, grow your own crystals and DNA extraction had to be omitted due to safety regulations. After having tested the Science boxes with some enthusiastic primary school children, we can, however, confirm that the remaining experiments are safe and easy to perform, both individually or in group. In total 50 Sciences boxes were created. While distributing to schools, we computed 1 box per 5 to 10 students. Since handing out the boxes, we have already received some initial positive feedback from teachers.

KinderUniversiteit (ChildUniversity)

There are few things more important than educating the children of today who will become the scientists of the future. We wanted to inspire and nurture a passion for science in them not only in the classroom but also outside of it in a more hands-on and interactive manner. That is why we took part in the ‘Kinderuniversiteit’ (‘Children university’) of the KU Leuven, a project where hundreds of children and teens get the chance to engage with scientific topics and ideas through lectures and workshops.

To help bolster the programme and to make sure synthetic biology was represented, we hosted several workshops where we helped the children perform a variety of experiments, from exploring design principles with making paper and plastic rockets to exploring the building blocks of life itself with DNA extractions from fruit. With these experiments we wanted to get the children enthusiastic and interested in science and particularly in synthetic biology. We organized 2 workshops for 40 children from ages 8-13 where they got a taste of what it is like to be a real scientist. They got the chance to perform their own experiments and were accompanied by ample supervision and scientific background, even though sometimes they asked question even we couldn’t answer! We made sure to include not only experiments that needed lots of materials and expertise, but also very accessible experiments that they could easily do at home.

The children were very enthusiastic about the workshop and assured us they would be trying some of the experiments at home with their friends and families. There is nothing we enjoyed more than to see the kids being fascinated with science and getting them passionate to enter the world of synthetic biology in the future.

DNA games

Due to COVID-19, in-classroom visits to reach young children were not a possibility for most of the year. This is why we decided to create an online city-game. The purpose of this game dual. On one side we wanted to introduce young children aged 10-12 to what DNA is and how it was discovered. On the other hand, we wanted to give families with children the opportunity to discover our city and visit the most important monuments. We achieved this by creating an online game inside our website, which is accessible in both Dutch and English. The translation of the game in English made it possible to reach the many international families that live in Leuven.

As part of our outreach project, iGEM Leuven decide to make a city game around the history and discovery of DNA. Due to COVID-19, in-classroom visits to reach young children were not a possibility for most of the year, the idea to create an online game grew from here. The most important aim of this game is to make children in the last two years of primary school more curious about science in general and playfully learn what DNA is and how it was discovered, while combining this with showing of monuments and historical buildings in our city. This way, it can be both played by classes and by families. The age group we focus on is 10-12 years old, we received feedback on the content and execution from two teachers, an education expert and an education student.

Additionally, we also made an introduction manual which explains the different sites/games we use in our games, so it can be used in and/or adapted to other cities. We chose to work out the game on our website rather than on paper, with the aim to distribute QR codes with help of schools and the city to make the DNA Games as accessible as possible. We made the game in both Dutch and English, in order to reach all families in Leuven.

The Synbio challenge

Online classes take a toll on students’ mental well-being. To disrupt the continuous stream of online lessons during the COVID-19 pandemic, we developed a guided independent learning activity which students can complete at their own pace: the Synbio Challenge. In the Synbio Challenge students are playfully introduced to the CRISPR-Cas technology and encouraged to think critically about the practicalities of a CRISPR-experiment. 

With the COVID-19 pandemic leading to the near-total closure of secondary schools, colleges and universities, educators were suddenly forced to continue their classes online. It quickly became apparent, however, that the monotonous nature of online lessons affected both teachers’ satisfaction as well as students’ mental well-being. To disrupt the continuous stream of online classes, we developed the Synbio Challenge (see below), a guided independent learning activity which students can complete at their own pace. The Synbio Challenge not only enables us to engage high school students with synthetic biology, but also acts upon a shortcoming of the Flemish biology curriculum, namely the absence of content regarding CRISPR-Cas technologies. 

During the development of the SynBio challenge, we solicited feedback from experts such as the Flemish Biology Olympiad as well as teachers on a regular basis. One of the main changes that came out of this interaction, was the switch from a PowerPoint-based answering sheet to a website-based interface. This improved ease of use for both teachers and students, increasing the likelihood of the Synbio Challenge being incorporated into the lesson plan. To ensure the distribution of the Synbio Challenge, the Flemish Biology Olympiad has agreed to incorporate it into the materials they provide to schools.

Video series

Every year the Flemish Biology Olympiad collects its best and brightest, all young and eager scientists to be, and provides them with interesting lectures and training sessions to aid them along their path. This was a perfect opportunity for iGEM KU Leuven to introduce the high schoolers to the fundamentals of synthetic biology as well as helping them navigate the large number of disciplines and fields of study that intersect with synthetic biology. Due to the restrictions caused by the pandemic, the informational virtual lessons were made freely available for anyone to watch.

The video series we developed, which on the 21st of October had nearly 500 views in total, explains the basics of biology starting with the fundamental truth of life: the central dogma of molecular biology. After that, the series takes kids through the steps of some of the most important and fundamental techniques and processes present in biology: how PCR and electrophoresis are performed as well as restriction, recombination, and sequencing. The video series was carefully made to not only be age appropriate, but to also following the Flemish educational guides at the time so as to make sure they would be as useful as possible for our target audience and their education. Considering our target audience were high schoolers (17 to 18 years old) who were close to having to make a very big decision about what they were going to study in higher education, we found it very important to help them navigate this task and tell them about our own experiences at the university and the respective disciplines of everyone in the team related to synthetic biology and which possibilities came with it. For this purpose, we also provided them with the team testimonials and perspectives and developed a flowchart to give them a clear overview of their possibilities.

High school visits

While biology is a large part of the education of high school students, synthetic biology is not. We made presentations for third grade high school students, making use of animations and videos to show them what life looks like on a molecular scale and how scientists manipulate and study it. Additionally, we presented our project in an easy-to-understand manner and promoted the iGEM competition.

Poster translation for iGEM NU Kazakhstan

Language is often the biggest barrier migrants have to overcome when it comes to education, bottlenecking their actual capacities. That is why wholeheartedly participated in iGEM NU Kazakhstan’s effort to increase the available material about synthetic biology and biology in general for high school students. Therefore we translated three posters related to synthetic biology. Through our efforts and that of other iGEM teams, they managed to create a multi-lingual library of posters covering a range of relevant biological topics and concepts. The picture to the right is the non-translated poster.

GMO debate

Science is not a stand-alone matter, but an intricate part of society. Whilst scientists’ ultimate goal is to acquire new insights and generate knowledge, they should never lose sight of the societal impact their research could have, nor neglect or abandon ethical conduct. Given its fragile societal acceptance, this is particularly true for synthetic biology. Only through total transparency, honest results and disclosure of potential negative effects, can synthetic biology constructively contribute to society. To enable this, open communication and the establishment of a basic level of scientific literacy in all members of society is required. To that end, iGEM KU Leuven collaborated with Ethics@Arenberg to organize the debate evening: “Genetic engineering and sustainability: who pays what price?”.

On the 20th of October, iGEM KU Leuven organized the debate evening: "Genetic engineering and sustainability: who pays what price?" together with Ethics@Arenberg. For the debate, four experts, from various universities and research institutions, were invited to speak. In addition, professors, university staff, university and high school students as well as residents of the city of Leuven were invited to participate in the debate. Given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, participants could join both in person as well as online. In total, 188 people joined the speakers in the auditorium, whilst 190 people participated online.

Professor Filip Rolland is a professor of biology at KU Leuven university, director of the KU Leuven Plant Institute and chairman of the interdisciplinary metaforum group “GMOs in our food manufacturing: contribution to a nuanced debate”. He opened the debate with a brief introduction on the history of gene editing, followed by an overview of gene editing techniques in plants, current applications of genetically modified plants and ongoing research.

Professor Nadine Buys was the second speaker of the evening. Nadine is a professor at the faculty of bioengineering at KU Leuven. She summarized the current state of gene editing in animals, addressed some of the associated ethical dilemmas and discussed future perspectives.

Dr. René Custers is the regulatory & responsible research director at the Flemish institute of biotechnology (VIB). His area of expertise concerns the European regulatory framework and legislation regarding GMOs. René presented a short introduction on the current European GMO legislation as well as the current state of affairs in light of the recent study from the European Commission on new genomic techniques.

The final speaker of the evening was professor Philippe Baret. Philippe Baret is the dean of the faculty of bioengineering at UCLouvain and member of the Earth and Life Institute. He provided a dissenting view, advocating for a change the current system – the manner in which crops are cultivated and food distributed – to achieve a more sustainable agriculture, rather than the use of GMOs

Following their opening statements, the speakers took to the stage for 50 minutes and debated one another on the basis of questions from the audience, moderated by Professor De Tavernier of the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at KU Leuven. Various questions were raised, such as: How can the competitiveness of non-GMO farmers against GMO farmers be assured? Can't both GMOs and a change in the system contribute to a more sustainable future? If the growing of GMO crops is not allowed within the European Union, does this not hinder scientific research?

The active participation of the audience during the debate felt hugely validating, it showed that people are interested in synthetic biology and appreciate these types of events taking place. In addition, we (both iGEM KU Leuven and a few participants we were able to meet afterwards) also felt it was a tremendous addition that Professor Philippe Baret, with his dissenting view, had joined the debate as there are, in fact, well-founded scientific arguments to be made against the use of GMOs (exemplified by Philippe’s opening statement). These, however, are often drowned out by ideological shouting.

MedTech convention

We helped organize the MedTech Convention together with AFT and Junior ORSI to shed some light on the new technological developments in the healthcare industry. For this 2021 edition, Belgian start-ups will come share their ideas and innovations in these sectors. The goal of the MedTech convention is to inspire students with different backgrounds by showing them the opportunities created when the engineering and the healthcare sector collaborate. You can visit for more information.


One of the most difficult aspects in science, is communicating it to the entire population. This includes many people without a scientific background, who are often excluded from new scientific evolutions and discoveries because of the difficult jargon. In order to bridge this gap we did multiple things on different levels of expertise. This includes three articles aimed at the general public in EOS magazine and participating in a VIB conference and PhD meet-ups aimed at experts in synthetic biology. We also organized the Dragon’s biome aimed at practicing our and other team’s pitch towards possible investors.

Eos articles

We wanted people of all ages to be able to get a feel of what it is like inside an iGEM lab. Let them take a look behind the scenes and make them feel like they are stepping into the lab with us. Therefore, we got Massimiliano Simons, a philosopher interested in discoveries in life science and more specifically synthetic biology and metagenomics, to follow us around in the lab during the project. We talked to him about our work as an iGEM team and the world of synthetic biology in general. By now he has written and published two (Dutch) articles on our work with a third on its way. These are published on Eos Blogs which is part of the Eos magazine, a popular science platform spreading news on the latest discoveries in science since 1983.

The first article [1] is named “The road of plant to single cell” where here Massimiliano explains what our project entails to the public. The article is written to make the audience feel as if they are walking around the lab with us, looking for reagents and observing the little steps we take each day to get to our ultimate goal. Directed evolution, plant cell research, stem cells and much more is explained to the reader in a way everyone can understand. This has also been a good learning experience for us, since we are often too close to our research to be able to explain all the goals and concepts in a way that is clear to everyone outside of the lab.

This brings us to the second article [2] : “DNA in all it’s colors”. This article explains that even though we often work with transparent solutions in the lab, scientist can still find ways to reveal what has happed in the reaction with high certainty by making it visible. We do this by making structures fluorescent, coloring it with a dye, measuring absorbance of light etc. Massimiliano also highlights the philosophical aspect of this work. We cannot see the nucleotides and amino acids in a mixture, but we trust that a certain absorption ratio can tell us what the DNA concentration is in a given solution. We have to proof our results with secondary research methods where we get to our findings on based previously assumed methods. This is inevitable but is interesting to every now and then stop and think about. This highlights our job as scientists to carefully bring the invisible world to the surface, pay close attention to the details and never forget what our methods are based on.

[1] Massimiliano Simons. De weg van plant tot eencellige. url: Eoswetenschap, 08/2021.
[2] Massimiliano Simons. DNA in alle kleuren. url: Eoswetenschap, 09/2021.

PhD presentations

We organized two meetings where we presented our project and any initial results to PhD students and other members of the research group of prof. Vitor Pinheiro and prof. Filip Rolland (and prof. Koen Geuten). We received a lot of positive feedback both on our presentation style and content. A few remarks were given along the way regarding the hardware and plasmid design (lab prof. Vitor Pinheiro) and how our plant continuous directed evolution platform could be applied in further research (lab prof. Filip Rolland). These suggestions were well tailored to our research subjects since these labs are experts in the field our project is situated in. We adjusted and applied this in our project to further improve it. Furthermore, this helped us practice how to best present our project (especially the wet lab part) to a scientific audience in an efficient and clear way. A great improvement was already visible from the first presentation we did in prof. Vitor Pinheiro’s lab compared to the later one in prof. Filip Rolland’s lab.

Much more feedback was given throughout the course of the project by prof. Vitor Pinheiro, prof. Filip Rolland and prof. Thomas Jacobs. This helped us build the project every step of the way and direct us away from dead ends.

VIB conference

We had the amazing opportunity to have a booth at the VIB conference on genome engineering and synthetic biology (4th edition). This online event had over 160 participants from all over the world who had the opportunity to listen to 30 speakers from academia and industry over a 3-day period. In our virtual booth we were able to present our project to the scientific community who can provide specific feedback on our wet lab work. This was a great opportunity to take a closer look on how to best present our project to an audience with extensive scientific background in an efficient way. It also served as preparation for the iGEM presentation at the end of the project. The picture on the right is from the VIB conference itself:

We also took a closer look the research of many of the participants to see if their expertise was closely related to our project to be prepared for any questions they might have. From the many expert talks throughout the conference, we gained new insights from speakers in the field of CRISPR applications, directed evolution and DNA synthesis, which all fitted perfectly within our project subject. Most of the ideas or opportunities we took note of were not feasible to implement in our current project, but were interesting in future developments of BLADEN. We especially paid attention when we heard previous iGEM accomplishments mentioned in multiple speaker presentations (e.g. iGEM teams led by Lynn Rothschild). These iGEM projects directly affected research breakthroughs all over the world. We also had the opportunity to network and get a feel of how our project can fit in scientific research on CRISPR in plants.