Team:UCDavis/Educational Outreach

Educational Outreach | iGEM Project Cargo

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Educational Outreach

Getting highschool students in our local area excited about synthetic biology

by Jason Hu

Introducing highschoolers to synthetic biology

The pandemic can make education feel tedious and the grind of daily zoom calls as a substitute for the learning environment can drain the motivation of any student quickly. The students on Team UC Davis also feel this. It can be difficult to pursue and explore interests when trapped in a digital environment for so long.

We are thankful to be living in the city of Davis, California where the pandemic response has been impeccable. The city had campaigns for social distancing, constant mask mandates, and efficient testing for all (UC Davis actually just celebrated its 1 millionth COVID-19 test administered!). Thus when Davis Senior High School returned to in person operation, we felt it was safe enough to pursue in-person education outreach where we could have the maximum engagement with students.

We would like to thank Mr. Langberg for letting us com into his classroom to give our talks!

Team UC Davis took the exciting world of synthetic biology to students in the classroom. We gave an hour long talk to students from three different periods of honors chemistry students. Ultimately speaking to approximately 70 students about how synthetic biology is being used currently to solve problems and what techniques are being used in the lab.

I also felt that it was important to give students tangible advice on how to pursue their goals. I feel that the advice that makes a successful scientist, can also apply to becoming a successful doctor, artist, and even race car driver. I shared with students what I found successful. That being reading literature about what I was interested in, forcing myself to confront difficult experiences, and building strong connections. I even offered my own contact if any of the students were ever interested in chatting again in the future!

We were graciously welcomed into the classroom of my long time friend Mr. Langberg. He was actually my chemistry teacher when I was a high school student. He was an excellent teacher whose chemistry notes I still use in college. It is hard to believe that when I was still trying to figure out what I was excited about, I would come back years later as a biochemistry major with a passion for research.

Our collaboration partners from the University of California, Santa Cruz were very kind to help us with preparing some material to share with the students. They helped us with explaining how invaluable E. coli is for bioengineering for its ability to accept designed plasmids for either DNA or protein amplification. Team Santa Cruz also helped us show students what life in the lab was like through the significance of collaboration and wet/dry lab work.

link attached iGEM 2021 UC Davis: Davis High School Syn Bio Talk

Reflection on the Talks

The most surprising thing that I noticed while giving this talk was how engaged the students were. I have had many years of practice with public speaking and it was something I always loved to do. I worked at a Zoo giving animal talks to the public with animals like snakes, salamanders, and giant cockroaches. I was used to icey crowds and I knew how to warm them up.

But I was pleasantly surprised by how little “warming up” I needed to do. I received many questions from the students during and after the talks I gave. Unfortunately, the recordings couldn’t capture what happened at the end of the talks. Dozens of students would come up and ask questions about their specific goals and ambitions.

One student asked me, “what do the job options look like for bioengineering?” and another asked, “if I want to be a veterinarian, what should I do for my college application?”

I was impressed by how specific and mature these questions were! Some students really had put a lot of thought into their future options and I was glad I could have given them advice.

However, the most pleasantly surprising thing I witnessed were all the questions from students who did not want to pursue a STEM career, but still wanted advice on what they should do for their own goals and ambitions. A student said to me, “I’m not really that interested in synthetic biology, but I really want to be a singer and a race car driver.”

At that age I was still trying to figure it all out myself and I would have loved to have had someone who could answer my questions. Despite not having any familiarity with song or speed, I had a strong feeling that good communication skills and a hunger for opportunity was applicable to her.

In the end, it was wonderful seeing my old high school chemistry teacher again after so long and I thoroughly enjoyed getting to speak with students on how to kick start their careers. I am glad I got to take this chance to step out of the lab and interact with other curious students.