In the entire history of humanity, few things have been more impactful and important than accessible education to all. A good education truly is the great equalizer, enabling people to do and achieve great things no matter where they started in life. Speaking about great things, we all know iGEM’s central theme is, in essence, synthetic biology. One thing that has become clear to our team during our project, is that this multidisciplinary area is so incredibly versatile that we could work in it to find solutions to seemingly any problem humanity faces.
We talk and think about these problems, and we certainly often hear about them such as on the news, and the future might start looking bleak. Climate change, antibiotic resistance, ecosystems collapsing, and pandemics becoming ever more frequent make us feel like the world is collapsing. But while the problems feel (and are) severe, there is also hope. The feeling of hopelessness stands in stark contrast to the feeling of hope when we look at the possibility for solutions and maybe even more importantly, the people working to design and develop these solutions.
This really has been the philosophy of the KU Leuven 2021 team. When we brought the science to the people, and when we tried to educate kids and inspire them about the field of synthetic biology, we did it with this central thought in mind: “If we do a good enough job, if we are able to really light a fire of passion for science in these people’s hearts, we might just inspire one of them to go on and solve one of the great problems we are or will be facing.”
Our task was thus clear, to provide the best and most exciting educational tools we could and provide them to not only the largest audience but also the ones that need it most. How to go about this was our next task. Coming up with ideas and developing these is easy enough, but how do we make sure they make a difference? We tried to take a scientific approach to our educational tools and the first step of any scientist who needs to figure out a problem is to make sure you know the appropriate context.
This started at the very beginning with recruitment for our team, making sure we had at least one member who was enrolled in the educational master. Besides, we constantly consulted and discussed with parents, multiple teachers of different grades, professors in education, and industry experts in educational tools and games. This way we made sure that the projects we developed did not only respond well to the wants and needs of the kids themselves, but also to those who were teaching and raising them and to the educational standards and goals set by our government and their experts.
There is one large contextual problem we confirmed but already suspected before consulting with experts and stakeholders, the pandemic. In Belgium (and undoubtedly many other places, but we only researched and can speak for our own community), the sudden switch to virtual education was a difficult transition for many and caused a lot of kids to fall behind in their academic progress. A serious problem that disproportionally affected kids who came from families with limited means, meaning often first-and second-generation immigrant families.
It was clear we had to focus on making sure we reached these kids, and our educational program was accessible to everyone including them. Therefore, next to all our other education initiatives, we focused on developing a myriad of virtual tools such as our Synbio Challenge and educational packages that are usable autonomously with limited supervision such as our Science Box.
For more information, see Education and Communication