Perfecting a microbiology workshop for science museums
Inspiring high school students
First steps into synbio for elementary schoolers
Discussing ethics of GMOs with the general public
Revealing a hidden world to Leiden's citizens
Perfecting a microbiology workshop for science museums
Optimizing the perfect workshop for science museums through testing and implementing feedback.
In order to create a fun and educational activity tailor-made for science museums, we have given a microbiology workshop several times and implemented multiple rounds of feedback, optimizing it for museums. The goal was to design the workshop in such a way to keep it both entertaining and educational. We have implemented feedback from visitors, as well as from museum staff and adjusted the program accordingly. The result is a mix of information about microbes and hands-on experiments which are enjoyed by children, teenagers, adults and elderly.
We have given this workshop at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center, which has won the prestigious award of European Museum of the Year 2021. We have also given the workshop at Rijksmuseum Boerhaave, which has been awarded the same prize in 2019. By giving our workshop at different museums and implementing feedback from museum staff, we have elevated the workshop to a higher level. Moreover, by using feedback from critically acclaimed museums we improved our program to best suit their audience. This workshop can be used by other iGEM teams as a guideline for organising events at science museums.
Microbiology workshop at Naturalis Biodiversity Center
The main goal of our microbiology workshop was to educate the public about the presence of microbes everywhere. Regarding the contemporary COVID-19 outbreak, people in the Netherlands are urged to wash their hands. On public posters, it is emphasized that washing destroys the harmful microbes. However, children do not yet have a clear idea as to what a microbe is, and most of the general public probably has never seen microbes with their own eyes. Therefore, we have designed a workshop in order to reveal the presence of the microbes living alongside us. The first museum where we gave our workshop was Naturalis Biodiversity Center, a science museum located in Leiden which specializes in natural history and biodiversity. Their promotion for our event can be found here.
Firstly, we created a quiz for the public in which the differences between well-known microbes became clear. The public had to match life-size images of agar plates containing microbe colonies to microscopic images of the species. A description about each microbe was added in which easy riddles were hidden with which one could solve the puzzle. Subsequently, we showed sealed agar plates containing various fungi and bacteria to the public so they could hold onto the microbes to make it more real.
In our presentation, we explained that microbes are all around us. This was again showcased with tangible matter like agar plates. For example, we sampled water from a pond, and diluted dirt onto agar plates. We brought the plates, sealed in epoxy to showcase to the public. The difference in microbial composition was easily seen. The dirt sample contained more fungi than the water sample, and overall more microbes were present on the agar plates containing diluted dirt. Visitors could conclude that it looked as if totally different microbes live in the water than in the earth.
We also had left an agar plate open for four hours, which showed various colonies. This proved to the public that microbes are even in the air. We explained that our immune system is used to most bacterial species and most of the time perfectly capable of dealing with the threat. However, when a pathogen is too strong for our immune system, we need to find other ways to protect ourselves. One way is the repeated washing of hands. We explained how washing with soap destroys microbe fatty membranes , just like dish soap rids dirty plates of fat. To demonstrate this to the public, we did another experiment which the public could participate in. The public was asked to place their (i) unwashed fingers, (ii) fingers rinsed with water, (iii) fingers cleaned with soap and (iv) with hand sanitizer containing ethanol on agar plates. We sealed the plates air-tight with Parafilm and the visitors could take their plate home to watch the microbes living on their own skin grow.
Lastly, we wanted to give the visitors the experience of being a scientist. We chose to combine this with a small lesson about DNA to make the concept of DNA less abstract, and again, tangible and visible. Visitors could precipitate DNA from their saliva. During this experiment they could wear a lab coat and lab goggles, and use pipettes. At the end of the experiment the DNA was visible as a white jelly-like substance. Children enjoyed this activity the most.
The following protocol was used:
- Dissolve half a tablespoon of salt in 200ml water in a beaker
- Transfer a tablespoon of the salt solution into a glass
- Wash your mouth for two minutes with the salt solution in the glas
- Spit the solution back into a beaker
- Put a few drops of washing soap into the beaker and stir
- Pipette 9ml of 97% ethanol into the beaker, gently stir
- Wait for 2 minutes
- DNA will jump out of solution and be visible as white strings
Feedback after meeting and implementation
After meeting with science communicator Amy van Nobelen and organizer of LiveScience Daphne Suijker of Naturalis, the schedule for the workshop was adapted. Our original idea was to have a large table to perform the experiments on with visitors after iGEM team members would explain the background of the experiments shortly beforehand. The core was to make our workshop down-to-earth and accessible. We received feedback arguing that this idea would probably be quite intense for the team members present if a lot of people show up. To allow for the most visitors to enjoy our workshop, we decided to adjust the workshop in a way which kept the core message the same and still made it interactive. The form would shift towards a presentation in which volunteers from the audience could participate by doing the experiments. The presentation was also limited to an hour, following advice from the science communicator regarding attention span and time left for walking through the museum. Furthermore, the presentation would be given twice on the same day during peak hours. In between the presentations, visitors were free to do experiments with our guidance. Next to the presentation and workshop, we had an information stand with three laptops displaying our promotional iGEM video, our video about the microbes living in the canals of Leiden and our preliminary Wiki. Visitors could at all times engage in discussion about GMOs, iGEM, synthetic biology and our project with enthusiastic team members.
Feedback after the first presentation and implementation
LiveScience manager Tom Jilink gave feedback following the first presentation. It contained mostly useful tips regarding visitor time management. For example, in the beginning, we should mention how long the presentation will take and that visitors are free to walk in and out of the workshop at all times. We also handed out short evaluation forms to the viewers after the presentation to be able to take visitor experience into account so we could improve the presentation for the second round. Feedback was implemented and used in the following presentation.
The following questions were asked on the visitor feedback form. Some answers have been translated as examples of responses.
Q1: What did you think of the workshop?
A1: Very interesting, educational and active.
Q2: Did you learn something from the workshop?
A2: The difference between bacteria and viruses and your project about kill switches.
Q3: Was the workshop clear enough? (0-10)
A3: Average: 8/10
Q4: Did the workshop have enough interaction with the public? (0-10)
A4: Average: 9/10
Q5: Could we add something to the workshop?
A5: More background about who you as presenters are.
Q6: Could we improve part of the workshop?
A6: Passing the agar plates along the public was a bit distracting.
Feedback after second presentation and conclusion
The science communicators at Naturalis also gave feedback following the event:
Amy van Nobelen: "You could clearly see the audience enjoying the presentation in which they fanatically participated. My compliments to the interactive program and the enthusiastic style of presenting, also to the rest of the iGEM team. I will certainly contact Daphne (organizer of LiveScience) to schedule this as a yearly event at LiveScience."
Tom Jilink: "It was, without doubt, a great success! This was clearly due to your enthusiasm and the way you engaged with your audience. The iGEM competition should become a standard activity in the agenda of LiveScience."
In conclusion, the workshop was regarded as a huge success, both by the museum staff and visitors alike. The fact that Tom Jilink suggests making our workshop a yearly addition to the museum's program shows how well-suited to science museums our workshop is. Besides educating visitors about synthetic biology, we as a team also gained knowledge via the discussions we had with visitors. We learned about their opinions on GMOs and synthetic biology, which were very insightful and stimulated us to organise a discussion evening on the topic.
Microbiology workshop at Rijksmuseum Boerhaave
With the experience gathered from giving the workshop at Naturalis, we sought to try another way of giving the workshop to assess if changes could improve it. The second museum where we have given the workshop is Rijksmuseum Boerhaave, a science museum aimed towards showcasing scientific and medical history. Their promotion for our event can be found here.
We wanted the workshop to be as interesting as possible for an audience as broad as possible. During the first time we gave the workshop at Naturalis we had noticed that children did not have an attention span as long as adults, and so the presentation format was not ideal for them. However, the hands-on experiments were a great success for the kids. For Rijksmuseum Boerhaave, we decided to split the workshop into a part for adults and a part for children. Multiple tables were put in the lobby to perform experiments on. The visiting children would go from table to table so they could receive a short explanation of the experiment and what it is supposed to show, before they went on to perform the experiments. Adult audience could join in a presentation which was given at another table. This way, many visitors could join the workshop at the same time, and it also made it more up close and personal.
Feedback after meeting and implementation
Some of the experiments were altered to better fit the setup we were going to use. For example, the saliva DNA isolation experiment was changed to precipitating DNA from strawberries. Our contact Marieke Hohnen (Science Communication & Education of Rijksmuseum Boerhaave) suggested that having a lot of children play with spit without supervision of their parents could pose a health risk.
In conclusion, we have created a microbiology workshop which is both fun and educational. It is a universal workshop which can be given at any science museum, is relatively cheap and enjoyed by people from all ages. We have shown that we determined the type of materials we produced by thinking about how to address an audience as broad as possible and talking with science communicators from museums. Different materials were chosen specifically for different age groups. For example, the presentation was directed towards adults and the experiments were designed for children. Multiple rounds of feedback from museum staff and visitors were taken into account when optimizing the workshop. The workshop also offered a place for having an open dialogue by having an information stand where team members could talk with visitors. The final result is a workshop template which can be used as a guideline by any iGEM team that wishes to give a workshop in a science museum.
Inspiring high school students
Introducing the new generation of scientists to synthetic biology by giving workshops in a high school.
In order to broaden the public we addressed in our educational campaign, we gave guest lectures at the Kaj Munk college high school. It is known as a technasium, which is a Latin school with technical excellence. We thought this was the perfect opportunity to teach high schoolers about synthetic biology, as they already possessed some knowledge about cellular biology and have some experience in basic laboratory techniques.
We gave lectures to six classes, which was the whole 4th grade of this high school (average age of 16). Their current theme in biology was phylogeny, so we designed a 50 minute long lecture about phylogeny and a 50 minute long practical following the lecture. We designed the lecture ourselves, asking Maarten Lubbers, one of our supervisors and a biologist with a strong background in phylogeny, for feedback. To break up the lecture we designed brain-tickling exercises for the kids to discuss with each other. We explained that morphology can be a trap in phylogeny as unrelated organisms can have very similar body shapes due to convergent evolution . This was showcased in the exercise we designed in which students had to argue which of a set of organisms are the most closely related to each other. It became evident that phylogeny purely based on form is nearly impossible due to convergent evolution and that DNA research is needed. The students seemed to really enjoy discussing the answers with each other. They were very engaged and seemed to appreciate talking with us and each other about the subject.
Two of the classes were pre-university students and the other four were pre-university of applied science students. We accounted for the possible difference in interests and learning curves of the students of different levels by differing their lectures and practicals. Our contact person at the school suggested that the pre-university students might have a longer attention span, so we decided to give more information about the subject to them and make the presentation a bit longer. While the pre-university of applied science students' lecture had more breaks for discussion in it. Their lecture was shorter overall, leaving more time for practical work.
The practical for pre-university students entailed a Gram staining. We thought this activity to fit quite well with phylogeny, as we could teach the students about how bacteria were originally classified based on morphology instead of a combination with genetics. Later, researchers switched to classifying them based on their chemical properties, before switching to ribosomal RNA . The practical for pre-university of applied science students entailed making Winogradsky columns. These enclosed circular micro-ecosystems harbour bacterial colonies growing in dirt collected from a pond. After some time, the heterogenous mixture of bacteria living in the dirt will start to form homogeneous layers. In each layer a different type of bacteria thrives. The top layer contains cyanobacteria living in water which perform photosynthesis, adding energy to the column. After some time, different specialized bacterial niches start to appear underneath the first layer. In order: heterotrophic bacteria, iron oxidizing bacteria, purple non-sulfur bacteria, purple and green sulfur bacteria, and lastly sulfate reducing bacteria . This practical was useful in teaching chemical properties of bacteria and was also fun, as the students got to create their own bacteria zoo.
Feedback after first practical and implementation
The teacher had noticed that some of the students had a hard time following some of the YouTube videos in English we showed during the presentation. We used these videos to increase enthusiasm about the topic and break up the lecture. To tackle this problem, we decided to explain some difficult terms the video uses before showing the video to the second class where we gave the lecture. The teacher offered some more practical advice from their experience as a teacher. For example, we placed one team member at every table where the practical was being performed instead of having us walk around to answer questions. In this way, questions were addressed more quickly, preventing students from getting stuck on a part.
Our lectures were much enjoyed by the students, many of whom showed genuine interest in synthetic biology. The students participated actively and discussed enthusiastically during our designed quizzes. The teachers who watched also gave very positive feedback. One teacher even did the practical herself and took the Winogradsky column home to watch the microbes grow and eventually make a timelapse. We can conclude that we have inspired many students and have organised an activity that fits well in the school's curriculum.
Ingrid Gruijs (Technical Education Assistant): "The way you combine listening, discussing and doing something with your own hands is very effective in education."'
First steps into synbio for elementary schoolers
Giving children their first encounter with synthetic biology by changing the curriculum of elementary schools.
Since we have given educational talks at many different age groups we decided to also include young children. We have contacted ICLON, the interfaculty center for teacher training, educational development and in-service training at Leiden University to set up a microbiology workshop aimed towards giving children of ages 8-10 their first encounter with microbes. We have set up an educational program that can be used by teachers even without iGEM team members present and we have contacted schools about taking the workshop up in their curricula.
We have designed a workshop according to learning objectives and have used feedback from the workshops we gave at museums regarding experiments for children. We have stated learning objectives as follows:
Learning objective 1: understand what microbes are.
Elaboration: Give the students a simple quiz about what microbes are. The corners of the classroom will be given a letter (A, B, C or D). To answer a question, the children have to run to the answer. As a visual addition, we would deliver agar plates containing varying bacterial and fungal strains. The colonies would be enclosed in resin. This preserves the microbes in the agar plates, making them usable for a longer period.
Learning objective 2: understand the importance of (hand)hygiene.
Elaboration: Explain that microbes also live on and in us. To illustrate, an experiment would be performed where children can place their washed and unwashed hands on agar plates. After 4 days, colonies can be seen and the children see the effectiveness of washing their hands.
Learning objective 3: understand that microbes are everywhere.
Elaboration: Especially as a kid, it is hard to believe that something you cannot see is in fact there. Therefore, we have designed these experiments for children so they have tactile evidence for the presence of microbes everywhere. Children will place agar plates in the 'dirtiest' places in school they can think of. After a few hours, the plates will be sealed and after a few days, colonies will appear. The children can then see that microbes even live in the air and compare whether what they thought was the dirtiest place is in fact the dirtiest.
Learning objective 4: understand what DNA is and that all living creatures possess it.
Elaboration: Explain that humans are made up of cells and that DNA contains the instruction to program cells, also of other animals and microbes. Follow up with a simple experiment in which DNA is isolated and precipitated from saliva, a kiwi or strawberry.
Learning objective 5: excite children about science.
Elaboration: Teaching children at such a young age already about microbiology with practical experiments can spark their enthusiasm about the field. Moreover, starting at such an early age there is not yet a difference between a scientist and someone who enjoys science, narrowing the gap between the two later in life.
Afterwards, the workshop should be reflected with the children. Questions can be asked like:
- What did you learn?
- What did you enjoy most?
- What will you remember from today?
Discussing ethics of GMOs with the general public
Organizing a discussion evening attended by people outside the scientific community in order to get to know their thoughts on GMOs and to open a two-way discussion.
Through our workshops at the museums, we got into contact with people from outside the scientific field. We engaged in discussions about GMOs with them. People often had a negative connotation with GMOs, voicing their concerns. This prompted us to organise a discussion evening on synthetic biology. We wanted to hear what people had to say about GMOs and synthetic biology, so we could understand where their fears came from. This understanding can be the first step into taking away fears and open a discussion about relevant threats. In order to make it more accessible for a wider range of audience, it was held in Dutch.
We invited an expert panel of three scientists in the field of synthetic biology, namely Dr. Lennart Schada von Borzyskowski, Renée Kapteijn and Marjolein Crooijmans. Furthermore, Marie-Louise Bilgin from the Dutch ministry (Senior Policy Advisor Biotechnology, Nanotechnology and Safe-by-Design) was also invited to the expert panel.
Each statement was introduced by the presenter and followed by an anonymous poll using Kahoot. People then were given the chance to discuss, and after sharing opinions and viewpoints another poll was issued. The outcome of the poll changed at some statements, indicating that the discussion had had an impact on the people present and changed their opinion.
We had a wonderful two-way discussion about the morality of the use of GMOs. Guests posed some interesting questions during the discussion, such as: "When do you draw the line and use a controversial tool such as DNA editing? When it could save a lot of lives? In times of one or multiple crises? Aren't we currently in a climate crisis, and should GMOs that could help us out of the climate crisis be utilized in an uncontained manner?" This indicates the importance of talking to people who are not as heavily invested in the science, but more into the functionality for society. A discussion about GMOs can educate the public on the science, but the public also gives scientists a good view of what they find important.
A summary of the discussion evening, which can be used by future iGEM teams to gain inspiration, can be found below.
Revealing a hidden world to Leiden's citizens
Entertaining citizens of Leiden with an educational video about the microbes living in our canals.
We have made an educational short film about the biodiversity of microbes living in the canals of Leiden. We sampled different recognizable places throughout the city and looked for microscopic life using a phase-contrast microscope. The purpose of this film is increasing awareness of microbes, and learning about the hidden world that is right under our noses. The film ends with a piece about GMOs and how our project can protect the natural biodiversity should we want to use GMOs in the field. As of writing this page, the film has over 500 views on Instagram, over 100 views on YouTube and over 1800 views on LinkedIn. You can watch it here.
We have been present in the media in the form of interviews, podcasts and talk shows. You can view our presence in the media on our Featured page. Below you find a short list of activities where we participated in science communication.
We have created a colouring competition with a prize for children to participate in. The goal of this colouring page was to entertain while educating, thus we have also included an educational aspect. This page aims to give children an idea of how small things are. This is done by coupling a recognizable image to a size. For example, a human is on average 1.8m tall and an ant is roughly 1.8 mm tall and thus a thousand times as small. A bacterium such as E. coli can be 2μm tall under certain conditions , again roughly a thousand times smaller than an ant. This puts in perspective for children how tiny bacteria actually are. The prize for the competition was a kit for growing the famous 'sea monkeys', which are artemia. To find young competitors we contacted elementary schools in Leiden and gave the images to children at Naturalis.
This weeks' discoveries
This week's discovery is an initiative by the Leiden University Science Faculty. Researchers across different departments can showcase their research or get into contact with researchers from other research fields via this weekly event. We had the honor of presenting our project for the first presentation of the new academic year. It was fun engaging with participants from different disciplines and gaining their input for our project. They announced our project on their website.
These workshops and other educational programs not only gave us the chance to share our understanding of synthetic biology, but also for us to learn from the concerns of the public. By performing the educational programs multiple times and implementing multiple rounds of feedback by education experts and the public, we have optimized our programs. We would highly recommend future iGEM teams to organize similar activities, for which our detailed descriptions on this page can be used as a source of inspiration. Particularly, the discussions held within multiple activities about GMOs gave us a better understanding of the ethics of our project, GMOs and synthetic biology as a whole. We believe it to be hugely important to think about how people will accept the use of GMO’s in their daily lives, especially when designing said GMOs. Conversely, we have inspired and intrigued many visitors to ponder what GMOs and synthetic biology can do for them.
- Burton, M., Cobb, E., Donachie, P., Judah, G., Curtis, V. and Schmidt, W., 2011. The Effect of Handwashing with Water or Soap on Bacterial Contamination of Hands. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 8(1), pp.97-104.
- Stayton, C., 2015. What does convergent evolution mean? The interpretation of convergence and its implications in the search for limits to evolution. Interface Focus, 5(6), p.20150039.
- Schleifer, K., 2009. Classification of Bacteria and Archaea: Past, present and future. Systematic and Applied Microbiology, 32(8), pp.533-542.
- Anderson, D. and Hairston, R., 1999. The Winogradsky Column & Biofilms: Models for Teaching Nutrient Cycling & Succession in an Ecosystem. The American Biology Teacher, 61(6), pp.453-459.
- Donachie, W. and Begg, K., 1989. Cell length, nucleoid separation and cell division of rod-shaped and spherical cells of E. Coli. Trends in Genetics, 5, p.364.