Team:Colombia/Human Practices

From 2011.igem.org

iGem @ Colombia

Human Practices

We at iGEM Colombia took Human Practices very seriously because we believe it to be one of the competition’s most important aspects. Our principle objective is that of generating educational material available for future iGEM teams. We have assembled a powerpoint presentation you may find here. We've also designed simple activities that may help illustrate key synthetic biology concepts such as how the genetic code works and the basic logical order DNA assembly should carry. As a multidisciplinary group, we decided to look at our outreach programs from multiple perspectives:

Education: as Universidad de los Andes students we’re in a very privileged position compared to most of our fellow Colombians, since most of our population does not continue into higher education programs. With this in mind we researched the Colombia Ministry of Education and National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE) data and publications in order to try and find possible causes for this fact. Through this, we realized that natural and basic sciences are not one of our students top career choices, easily surpassed by engineering and economics:

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It is disappointing to see how little interest science awakes in Colombia, especially in a country where only a million of the 12 million students enrolled in elementary, middle, and high school, enter universities.

We also found out how students with low scores in the Icfes test (Colombian SATs) have undergraduate level studies desertion rates as high as 60% at the end of their fourth year. This we believe to be very worrying given the fact that most of these students graduated from low-income schools.

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To tackle the aforementioned issues, we got in touch with Alianza Educativa (Educational Alliance), a non-profit organization whose purpose is to bring high level education to low-income schools. They helped us get in touch with several elementary, middle, and high schools for which we prepared a keynote presentation and Q&A section to try and motivate students into continuing their studies into higher education, particularly in science. We visited a total of four schools: Candelaria, Miravalle, Nicolás Esguerra, and Argelia and lectured over 1,100 students :).

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Our lectures were basically an overview of biology through multiple perspectives, beginning with classical biology, where we made a short historical introduction to the study of life and metabolism. We then continued into cell biology, where we explained how organisms were composed of cells, and how they were the basic functional unit of multicellular beings such as ourselves. Next, we explained molecular biology as the fusion of genetics and biochemistry, contrasting genes in chromosomes as books in a library containing recipes for the production of proteins, and these as nanoscopic machinery that power up cells. Once you understand the importance of the genetic code for life, you may begin to question how these genes and proteins interact and generate genetic networks, and this is what systems biology is all about. Here, we emphasized how biology is not just for biologists, and how biological questions are in need of multidisciplinary teams to come up with interesting and more robust answers. Finally, we introduced students to the concept of synthetic biology, the engineering of new biological functions through the use of standard biological parts, the iGEM spirit, and a small module trying to change the common perception that bacteria and microbes in general are evil through past competition’s projects as examples and our own project as a means towards the improvement of a national export product as important as coffee. You can find the the powerpoint file here! (Sorry its in Spanish)

The Q&A section was an opportunity we gave students to come up personally and ask us anything they wanted regarding science and iGEM. We were very pleased with the quality of the questions and how receptive and curious students were about possible projects for synthetic biology. This is as far as we went before the Americas' Jamboree. However, we had still lots of interesting ideas we've tried to carry out before the World Finals!

Feedback on lectures and Q&A

In order to make our experience and presentation materials a useful tool for other groups, we designed a questionnaire to be given to a subgroup of the children that attended our lectures (~150) and a group of control students of the same school who did not attend (~50). This feedback was used to redesign our presentations to better achieve our objectives.

Our objectives for the educational activities can be summarized in three points: - Lack of information about synthetic biology and mistrust of genetic technologies, in particular, modified bacteria. - Interest in science, its usefulness and perceived difficulty of a career in science. - Specific knowledge on molecular, systems and synthetic biology.

Our questionnaire tried to address these points with few questions that would be relevant in levels 7-12. The results can be summarized as follows (sample graphs illustrate percentage of each group per answer):

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Here we had a definite success in increasing exposure and interest in Synthetic Biology and changing perceptions about the inherent dangers of Living Modified Organisms (LMOs). Students had a more nuanced concept of genetic modifications and bacteria, as shown also by an absolute decrease in students that chose "bacteria are a recipe for disease" in a complete-the-sentence question. Our conclusion here is that we achieve our objective but need to prepare materials that can be given to the students after the activities to help them learn more by themselves.

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Here we had a moderate success improving interest, but what we found was that interest in science and positive perception of its practice and usefulness were much higher than the governmental information had led us to believe (showing a low rate of entrance to higher education in fields related with science) . To investigate this discrepancy further, we need to do a similar survey in rural schools, because we concentrated on low income schools in an urban setting. With respect to perceived usefulness of science we also saw a small change, so we will leverage the possible utility to farmers of our project, and we will explain their plight and the ecological consequences of fungicide abuse in our next version. Other groups would also have to use examples of applied iGEM projects.

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Here again we had a very satisfying outcome, as we saw that not only a notable increase in their perception of their knowledge of molecular biology after a single activity, but also in simple test questions about the basic concepts of molecular synthetic, and systems biology there was a clear improvement. We have yet to implement a feedback system on our hands-on educational materials, but we also want to use some feedback to generate improved versions that will be useful to other groups in the future.