The iGEM Team Bielefeld at a local high school

One of the discussions

As synthetic biology (SB) is going to be the next big thing in biology, its researches are always raising public concerns respectively are always in the focus of a public opinion. Therefore we got in contact with a local high school, in order to get an impression of the public awareness concerning synthetic biology. Hence we discussed with pupils about pros and cons of Synthetic Biology, iGEM and our projects as examples for applications. About 80 seniors from different biology and chemistry A-level courses came to the school's assembly hall and listened to our presentation, followed by questions. Afterwards the students were split into smaller groups of ten to twenty people and got accompanied by members of the Bielefeld iGEM team to discuss about iGEM and SB.

Jonas talking

In Germany the topic of SB has generally not reached the education in high schools yet. Lab courses with genetically modified organisms (GMO) are not possible due to the lack of accredited laboratories and equipment. Federal laws do not allow to work with GMOs outside a security level 1 laboratory. For those reasons, the subject matter of SB is an interesting and new field for most pupils. Our goals were to awake the public opinion, prevent fear, start public discussions and participate in the outreach about iGEM. We think that theses aspects are important topics when talking to pupils, because this is the next unbiased generation having to face prejudices and misunterstandings about SB. Further this is the generation Bill Gates ment when telling Wired that if he were a teenager today, he would be hacking biology (WIRED).

Robert talking

We began with presenting the general principles of SB by talking about combining engineering and biology, standardized parts and the construction of new systems with novel functionalities. Further we talked about iGEM in general, the Partsregistry, our team and some example projects to show what is possible when working with BioBricks. We aimed at simplyfying the whole topic to an understandable level, by comparing our bacteria with smartphones, BioBricks with apps and the Partsregistry with an appstore. To show the students what is special about iGEM apart from the scientific point of view, we presented what needs to be done during an iGEM project from beginning to end, how interdisciplinary and fun it is. We wanted to raise the attention to the fields of SB and iGEM. In the end we gave some short information about our university and the subjects we are studying.

To give the opportunity to ask questions or discuss ethical concerns with us we splitted the audience into smaller groups. Apart from questions about our study courses, how we manage our studies together with iGEM and the job opportunities after graduating, questions concerning SB and ethics came up. Below are some examples:

The audience
  • “What are your concerns about bioterrorism? What is done to prevent bioterrorism?”
  • “What were the winning projects from the last years?”
  • “Is it theoretically possible to build a smelling computer with synthetic biology?”
  • “Are there any disadvantages for european teams due to stricter laws?”
  • “What can be done with BioBricks apart from glowing bacteria?”
  • “Where should the boundaries for SB concerning ethics be set?”
  • "What kind of job do I get with knowledge in SB? And how does a working day will look like?!"
  • "How would you describe a typical working day in the lab during the competition?"

This morning in a local high school was an important experience for the high school students and also for us. We got some insights about what pupils think and are concerned about when discussing SB. Surprinsingly there were not so much concerns about our work as aspected, though the pupils already gave thought about general aspects of genetical engineering and SB. With the experience we gained we will improve our human practise work at the next big event we will be participating, the GENIALE, a one week science fair for all ages in Bielefeld. Further we promoted the open source principle behind iGEM, aroused some interest and hopefully prevented some fear when facing SB. All in all it was a great morning and as the public discussion is always an important part of iGEM, we encourage other teams to sometimes leave the lab and communiacte with the public.

We would like to thank Mr. Dirk Paul Stephan and the Ravensberger Gymnasium Herford for giving us the opportunity to hold our presentation as well as to visit and talk to the pupils.