This year, our team wants to focus on inclusivity issues that require attention in our country and beyond. We believe that education should be accessible to everyone, especially in their native and official language, and this is our responsibility to help those deprived of equal opportunities. Some members of our team already participated in the Kazakh Khan Academy project by making knowledge accessible in the Kazakh language. We have members who have experience working with children with special needs. By collective experience, we decided to target an even more socially marginalized part of the society, visually impaired people. Also, we aim to develop inclusiveness and diversity in science in as many directions as possible to make a meaningful contribution. As part of our campaign on inclusiveness and diversity, we carried out work to include children from socially vulnerable categories, linguistic inclusion, and minority groups - sexual minorities, women in science and education.
1. Language Inclusivity
Due to historic events that took place in Kazakhstan, there is a lack of science, popular science materials written in Kazakh language. This creates a barrier for children, especially from Kazakh speaking Southern and Western regions of the country to learn science, as it is mostly available in Russian and English languages.
Aiming to be inclusive and make our materials for high school students available in different languages, our team designed them in three languages: Kazakh, English, Russian. We invited other teams to collaborate with us so that these posters can cover a wider audience speaking in different languages, and can bring use to even more people. Up to date, our posters are available in English, Kazakh, Russian, Greek, Chinese, German, Estonian, Turkish, French, and Bulgarian. We were specifically welcoming those iGEM teams that have a lack of scientific materials in their language so that people speaking only in the corresponding language had access to our posters and could know more about synthetic biology. You can have a closer look at our posters in the section of Education.
We wrote popular science posts and announcements in three languages on our social media pages to ensure that Kazakh, Russian, and English speaking groups were included and understood our posts. With the aim to popularize synthetic biology, iGEM, and science, we used Instagram as one of our main tools and wrote about iGEM competition, differences between synthetic biology and genetic engineering, inclusion, announcements about our events and possibilities in the field of synbio in three respective languages.
Our team created an opportunity for all students of Kazakhstan to take part in the event: it was led in Kazakh, Russian and English languages! Individually unique speakers were invited for each group to share information either in Kazakh, Russian or English language. This provided children from regions and socially vulnerable categories with the opportunity to increase their science literacy and professional orientation in a language they understand the best. In order to make materials used and presented in the Summer Camp available for high school students across all regions of the country, we posted them on a Stepik platform for free in Kazakh, Russian and English languages.
Due to the lack of sources that can fulfill children's interest in science in their native language, we decided to make a contribution and contacted numerous publishers that create popular science materials for school students and wrote Kazakh articles about iGEM, synthetic biology and bioremediation for them. You can have a closer look at them in the section of Education.
2. Socially Vulnerable Categories (SVC)
People are referred to socially vulnerable categories (SVC), if they:
- are orphans and children left without parental care;
- have lost (did not have from birth) housing, breadwinner or physical ability to work;
- have a low income level or cannot earn money at all;
- are with disabilities of groups 1 and 2
- suffer from severe forms of certain chronic diseases
- have lost their homes as a result of environmental disasters or emergencies
- have family members who died n the performance of state or public duties .
Due to the difficulties presented by life circumstances and health conditions, children from socially vulnerable groups experience difficulties in obtaining high-quality, affordable and timely education. Therefore, our team wanted to support these groups of children and take measures to spread science and education among them.
iGEM Summer Camp is an event that aims to cultivate science-oriented minds among youngsters, promote iGEM activities, and provide technology career guidance for high school students in Kazakhstan. As for inclusivity, 20% of all available places at online Summer Camp were granted for socially vulnerable students.
Results: Regardless of their social status or status of their parents, SVC students got a chance to meet people who have succeeded in science, learned the basis of scientific methods, made some practical experiments, and received advice on choosing a career path. There was a tremendous interest from SVC families to take part in the Summer Camp, and while fairly selecting 45 people from 500 to our Summer Camp, we were very careful with all applications and considered a background of each child.
This year, our team decided to focus on non-specialized institutions, that have little or no additional resources to study science and other fields they are interested in. Therefore, one of the first places that received our science postrs in the vicinity of the capital was the orphanage Svetoch that was located in the countryside, in the in the village Malotimofeevka. Not only students, but teachers of the orphanage were very happy to receive these posters, and said that they need such materials for biology lessons.
Schools located in the rural areas of the country are less equipped compared to the schools in the capital. This year, our team made an emphasis on those schools that are less privileged and receive no additional funding. Our team wanted to spread knowledge by meeting students from rural areas in person and making them believe in their own potential and tell about science with a true passion. Therefore, we went to the school in the village called Zhibek Zholy, and prepared an event dedicated to iGEM, synthetic biology, professional orientation in the science field, shared experience and presented our posters. Our members created a board game, and brought it to this visit as well. School children played the game with other iGEM team members.We were happy to see that students liked the game very much and actively took part in the event.
3. People with special needs
The World Health Organization estimates that over 1 billion people have some form of disability. This corresponds to approximately 15% of the world's population .
Moreover, if we consider people with visual impairments, then around the world, about 2.2 billion people suffer from impaired near or far vision .
There are different degrees of vision loss:
- absolute (total) blindness in both eyes, in which light perception and colour discrimination are completely lost;
- practical blindness, in which either light perception or residual vision is preserved, allowing, to a certain extent, to perceive light, colours, contours and silhouettes of objects.
According to the established classification, the blind include persons whose visual acuity ranges from 0% to 0.04%.
The limited information in the visually impaired determines the schematism of the visual image, its scarcity, fragmentation or inaccuracy. With low vision, the speed of visual perception suffers; impaired binocular vision (full vision with two eyes) in visually impaired people can lead to so-called spatial blindness (impaired perception of perspective and depth of space), which is essential when drawing and reading drawings .
Due to these difficulties with the assimilation of information, people with visual impairments have limited educational materials available for use. Therefore, our team decided to increase the database of educational materials intended for people with visual impairments and spread our experience in the creation of specialized educational content.
In 2020, the number of individuals with disabilities in Kazakhstan was approximately 680 thousand, 4% of which was presented by visual impairment . According to the Social Protection of Persons with Disabilities in Kazakhstan, this number increased to 696 thousand in 2021 . The estimated number of individuals with visual impairment is expected to be increased to 27 thousand. These individuals require educational materials designed considering their needs. Moreover, considering the growth of Kazakh speaking population, there is also an increasing necessity of inclusive education in the Kazakh language. Having visual impairment or disability restricts people neither from learning nor from working in education or science.
Therefore, our project aimed to provide opportunities for visually impaired and blind people to learn science. This was done through the design of tactile educating posters and journals printed in Braille language on synbio and biology topics. These materials were manufactured with tactile visuals and with the implementation of the Braille script. The distribution of these materials can help to encourage interested individuals and students to proceed with their education.
Dear reader, Thank you for your interest in biology! We are very glad that we have such a great similarity! We think biology is cool, but synthetic biology, which we are doing in-depth, is even better! Let us introduce ourselves. We are a team of 18 students participating in an international synthetic biology project competition called iGEM. For 2021, we are the only team not only from Kazakhstan but from all of Central Asia. All 18 of us study at Nazarbayev University in Astana (Nur-Sultan) in the departments of biology and chemical engineering. We have to say that we are very excited about our participation in iGEM. You can already guess why. We love science and believe that synthetic biology can change the world! Therefore, we are eager to share our knowledge. During the preparation of the project, we wrote several articles and made posters. We have prepared this journal as one of the formats for disseminating knowledge about synthetic biology. We hope you find it useful! Let's change this world together and use synthetic biology as a tool for this!
Before starting work, we had a consultation with Ziyat Abdykaimov to understand what aspects of creating educational material for people with visual impairments should be considered. He is Nazarbayev University's expert on assistive technologies and information accessibility, consultant to the Commission on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities named after K. Imanalieva. We had several questions about the implementation of our project with posters and educational materials for people with disabilities, and conducting an interview with Ziyat Abdykaimov was a great opportunity to address these questions.
Key points that we have learned from an interview with Ziyat Abdykaimov:
Considering the case of children with complete vision loss, in what form is it recommended to distribute posters? How can we reach out to this group of individuals?
Key points from Ziyat’s answer:
Posters can be done as layouts: like a touch tour. Tactile graphics are most commonly used in museums. However, this requires a good technical base.
It is possible to deliver information using tactile images: mnemonic diagrams in which only the most important details are demonstrated.
Materials need to be printed on a tactile printer (available in the NU library, printed on thermal paper). Images can be printed out with it as well.
Will it be enough to promote posters on social media and through special organizations? What other methods can you suggest in order to distribute posters?
Key points from Ziyat’s answer:
There is a couple of special organizations: central administration in Nur-Sultan (Astana) and Republican Public Organization, which is a specific organization but, unfortunately, is not open for cooperation
There is a centralized library network named after Utegenov,that has materials in Braille. It is located in Chubary, Nur-Sultan (Astana).
In the capital city, there is a National Academic Library that has a room for people with special needs and has materials in Braille. Through them, you can reach the end-user.
There is a specialized School 10 in Nur-Sultan, that works with children with special needs.
We have created a board game with cells, chips, and dice. It is important for us to try to adapt it for people with visual impairments. We know that there are Monopolies with a special application, thanks to which it is easy to determine the location of all fields and objects by touch. Also, all inscriptions are in Braille. Do you think it will be possible for us to adapt the game in a similar way and are there printing houses in Astana that can do this for us?
It is possible to adapt the game by looking at the example of chess: black squares are convex, white ones are hollowed, the pieces must be adapted accordingly. There are specialised workshops for making the game, located In Almaty.
Do you think there are such topics and materials that need adaptation at the moment (acute shortage)? What kind of information is very necessary for the blind and visually impaired at the moment, but there is no access? Please tell us about the accessibility of social media platforms.
Key points from Ziyat’s answer:
Social media platforms are digitally accessible to some extent, and a good example of an accessible platform is Facebook, which can describe visuals as well. Telegram App is poorly developed for these purposes.
Specific fonts (it is said about the type of font as Arial) can be difficult for screen readers. When such fonts are used, a description of each letter is given for each letter and the meaning of the text is lost.
The screen reader contains a description of all letters.
Emojis are described and sewn into the screen reader, which greatly helps in the perception of the text.
Platform Limitations depend on the platform you choose.
At the web development level, a so-called text layer (5-6 words) is laid that describes each button. It depends on the web developer, that is, he must directly enter all the descriptions.
What aspects should be considered when recording audio descriptions for posters?
Neutrality is a major requirement for audio description.
How convenient is the poster’s audio function via scan codes? Are there better alternatives?
Key points from Ziyat’s answer:
How to find QR on the poster? It is necessary to think about how a person can be instructed so that they can easily find the location of the QR code.
In order to access QR codes, it is better to place posters in a specialized place, where it is possible to place a note or explanation about QR codes so that people will understand how to scan them or other individuals can help.
What acoustic pronunciation features should be considered when recording audio?
Key points from Ziyat’s answer:
There is a set of audio description standards that needs to be followed while recording it, which is available for free on the website of Audio Description Solutions.
The university has a library in extension for audiovisual learning - there are labs for audiovisual learning.
In the Innovative learning hub it is possible to record nuclear pod podcasts in the blocks C2 and C4 at NU.
In addition to social media coverage, we are developing our wiki site. This page will reflect all the work that we have done within the project. It is very important for us that our site is as accessible as possible for all users. What advice can you give in this regard?
Key points from Ziyat’s answer:
There are web accessibility standards that can help for the programming code of the website.
Check materials posted on WebAIM: Web Accessibility in Mind.
It is possible to learn from the Russian project “Describe to me”.
Give a text description to the poster in the field in the codesign.
The meeting with Ziyat Abdykaiymov greatly helped us in adapting the posters we created for people with visual impairments. On his advice, we:
Began recording the audio for each poster in a clear and neutral tone. Initially, we wanted to use the QR code to access the audio, however, as the specialist told us, it would be pointless if someone does not indicate to the user that the code is available and can be used. Therefore, we decided to use an available online platform as an alternative instead.
Also, on the recommendations of Ziyat Abdykaiymov, we learned about the availability of facilities that work with and create materials intended for people with disabilities in the national and our university libraries! This prompted us to change the poster format to journals printed in Braille language with the text taken from the scientific posters that we distributed at schools. By that, we adapted these materials for people with visual impairments in local libraries, so that they would be available there for public specialized use.
One of the big collaborations this year was with the iGEM Crete 2021 team. It was to create a Braille database in different languages. With the help of advice we got from Ziyat Abdykaiymov, we learned about local places where Braille can be printed out, which helped us to further develop inclusive educational materials.
To see more details about our collaboration with iGEM Crete 2021, please visit Collaboration
- Find Digital Voice Recorder or microphone in order to ensure better voice clarity and fewer distractions
- Explain every poster in all possible language you know and make the duration of explanation to be around 10-15 minutes
- Make your speech more expressive and try to use interactive "colors" of the speech
- Provide an informative speech that intends to educate the children on a specific topic.
- Use all your oratory and public speaking skills and imagine that you are explaining to the children who don't have deep knowledge about the topics; you should be able to explicitly explain the content in an easier and accessible way as much as possible
The aim of this collaboration was to create a database with biology materials on Braille language in Kazakh, Greek, and other languages.
The iGEM Crete team worked on the creation of the Database, and we provided them with science posters on 8 different topics designed by our team in English, Kazakh, Russian, Greek, Chinese, German, Estonian, Turkish, French, and Bulgarian languages. Also, as the only team from Central Asia, we provided their team with Braille language font in txt files of Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Mongolian, Russian, Tatar, Turkish languages, so that the database will contain Braille languages of different countries and it would contribute to the development of inclusion of the project. During this collaboration, we found out that there was no online version of the Braille language in Kazakh. Our members understood that there is a combination of 6 dots, and by looking at the existing Cyrillic Braille language and hard copy of Kazakh Braille, we copied letters of other languages that have the same combination of dots as our letters and due to that managed to get txt files of Braille languages.
Also, iGEM Crete team went to their local school and played a board game made by our team, which was translated to the Greek language, and we are truly happy that our posters went international.
4. Supporting minorities in STEM
Our team organized “Pride Week” to shed light on issues faced by queer youth in STEM, raise awareness on this issue and celebrate the last days of Pride Month by supporting the queer community.
We made a post with answers of students from queer community on question “What all of us can do to make an academic environment more queer friendly” and shared their answers.
During this week, we also posted Instagram Stories in three languages with statistics that show problems and discrimination faced by queers scientists in STEM .
Live "Queer Youth in STEM" with Sultan Mussakhan, iGEM Alumnus
36 people joined Live session with Sultan Mussakhan, who shared his personal and professional experience in the field of biology and synthetic biology. We believe that this session was useful for queer youth pursuing their degree, and to feel and understand, that there are people who can relate to their problems and serve as a role models.
Posts queer youth in STEM were highly welcomed and reposted, that it gained attention from Instagram platform and they granted our team’s account with 20$ to promote the event further. Young people from Kazakhstan, who saw our posts that were reposted by queer supporting pages, started following our Instagram page. We see it as a positive result since we showed that iGEM community promotes diversity and inclusion, and people felt this support and over 130 people saved our posts related to Pride week.
Welcoming girls and women in STEM, who face discrimination and inequality issues, can start from raising awareness by telling about women scientists, who can serve as role models for others. Also, it is no less important to speak up about problems and injustice that exists in the scientific world and touches lives of different groups. Therefore, we wrote an article that told about first women in science in Kazakhstan, presented official statistics that regarding proportion of men and women in science and in leading positions, explained a metaphor of glass ceiling and told about how we are dealing with these problems in iGEM.
Dr. J. Michael Ryan is an assistant professor of sociology. He received his PhD in Sociology from the University of Maryland (United States of America) in 2013. Dr. Ryan was previously a TRANSRIGHTS researcher at the University of Lisbon (Portugal) and taught courses at the American University in Cairo (Egypt), Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO) (Ecuador), and the University of Maryland. We were interested in Dr. Ryan’s researches about sociology and social discrimination so we were happy to gain an opportunity to get advice from him for the improvement of the inclusive environment in our Summer Camp and Biohackathon.
Interview with Michael Ryan.
What we have learned and implemented in our projects :
One of the main aspects of inclusivity is to lower the barriers for the socially discriminated groups, not impose. For instance, the implementation of the quotas.
Diversity development is a key step to inclusivity improvement. Social influencers can greatly influence diversity and inclusivity improvement because the general public is more aware of them (social influencers) than of the academic papers.
Contact different companies/organizations that support minorities and invite them to be guest speakers or participants.
Equalize opportunities rather than outcomes.
Raise awareness and show that you welcome everyone.
Set non-discrimination rules and penalize those who violate them.
Our team aimed to organize a BioHackathon which was held free from gender prejudices and we assessed participants' tasks as neutrally as possible. We also set strict rules of non-discrimination, violations of which could lead to exclusion from the team. During the promotion period, we raised awareness of issues faced by women in the field of STEM worldwide and contacted numerous pages that post opportunities for girls and young women in the science and tech world asking to share the announcement of our event with their audience so that they know that we welcome any group of people and more than happy to see diversity among our participants.
5. Workshop: Innovative Approach to Inclusion and Diversity
Workshop: Innovative Approach to Inclusion and Diversity was arranged to raise awareness about inclusion issues and ways of making a project inclusive and welcoming diversity. This event was organized for iGEM teams and all people aiming to create an inclusive project. We invited specialists that are qualified in Inclusive Education, Creation of Audio Description for people with sight problems, Social Entrepreneurship, and Creating an engaging way to learn a language and promote its use. People who visited this workshop gained important knowledge on concepts related to inclusion, learned how Audio Descriptions are made and what are the requirements, learned the experience of Social Cafe Kunde and educational page Kazak bubble.
The first speaker was Kamila Rollan - a PhD candidate in Education with Specific Focus on Inclusive Education, Cambridge and founder of inclusive school “Education for all”. Her topic was: Inclusion in Kazakhstan: current reality and recent progress. Lecture: How to make your project inclusive? What things should be considered? This workshop gave a basis for understanding concepts of inclusion, its importance, and the current trend in this field. You may have a closer look at her insightful presentation.
The next invited speakers were from Dara Inclusion Foundation: Anna Loyenko, Maral Sheshembekova, Kassiyet Omarova
Their topic is: Accessibility through Audio Description: Success in Partnership
Dara Inclusion Foundation works with children with special needs, develops inclusive educational programs, and creates audio descriptions of paintings and sculptures for people with visual impairments. We invited this foundation to gain valuable insights on how audio descriptions are created and how iGEM teams can do it on their own in order to increase the accessibility of science materials.
The third speaker was Bibarys Seitak, a graduate of Nazarbayev University, a linguist by profession. We invited him to our Inclusivity workshop in order to inquire how a language learning process can be made interesting and exciting. Kazak Bubble is a stylish linguistic blog where authors share the intricacies of the Kazakh language and raise diverse topics - from current usage to the origin of words. His topic is: Creating engaging and interactive way to learn a language and linguistic inclusivity.
For the talk on inclusivity and diversity, the Founder of Kunde Social cafe, Maulen Akhmetov was invited to share his own experience in solidifying the foundation of inclusivity and in providing equal opportunity for everyone. "Kunde'' is translated as "every day" and it possesses special meaning and specific message: everyday Cafe staff strives to build an environment that upholds society's needs and creates a supportive, better society with the guests. Maulen Akhmetov shared his experience in Social Entrepreneurship with the topic of Launching an Inclusive Startup.
6. Inclusivity within a team
Ensuring inclusivity in the society you live in starts with diversity and inclusion in your core iGEM team, where you work together for least 6 months. During a COVID-19 pandemic, the main tools of communication were messenger apps and Zoom, and team spirit was heavily dependent on the feeling of being included, so that each member stays motivated to continue their work and willingly contribute and create impactful projects.
As participating in iGEM competition is no easy game, numerous students across the world feel pressured trying to balance between their activities, personal life and studies. Yet, we believe that despite of limited means of connection and huge workload, our members did well. We decided to ask participants to fill the survey to know how this work affected their mental health, well-being, and to know more about their struggles.
Questions in the survey included the following:
How often did you feel overwhelmed during iGEM project preparation?
Do you have other issues, not related to iGEM, that hinder your work in the team? (health/family/personal/mental issues)
Do you get a help from a psychologist?
Did you feel safe to talk about your problems to your team members?
How has participation in iGEM affected your mental health? (in a positive/negative way, please elaborate your answer)
The results were different from expectations. We found out that 78% of the participants were highly overwhelmed taking part in the competition. Half of the participants were impacted by their personal problems and that influenced their performance in the team. Another half answered that they had problems, but it did not have an effect on their productivity in the competition. Only 5 out of 14 respondents felt completely safe to share their problems with other team members, and only 3 of the students get help from a psychologist. Some of the members felt overly responsible for the team performance, while one of the members felt very anxious because of the failures in the work, while most of the students referred to their experience in iGEM to be positive.
These survey answers show how different and diverse we are, even though students' current academic studies, age, nationality, and financial status were quite similar. This diversity allowed us to come up with so many different projects, divide tasks in accordance with our interests and knowledge, and to brainstorm ideas from various angles. Inclusivity and diversity are intrinsic part of any team, whether it is seen or not and they are related not only to social status or physical health, but mental as well. Creating an inclusive world starts from inclusive environment within a team. And our message is that it is important to ensure that every participant has a sense of belongingness and safety, and this will help a team to move mountains.
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