DiscoverE Science Fun Day

Science - it's never too early to start learning about the world around us!

While most iGEM teams have historically focused on educational outreach in the high school setting, Team Alberta wanted to ensure that many students had a head-start to their genetics education.

In August, Team Alberta invited campers ranging from grades 4-6 from the DiscoverE Summer Program into our lab space for a morning of fun-filled science activities! DiscoverE is an 'engaging activity-based' summer camp whose programs allow students to explore new ideas through hands-on projects related to a variety of fields in the science, engineering and technology disciplines.

Our science fun day activities included:

  1. Presenting our project to students in an approachable and easily-understandable way!
  2. Extracting DNA from strawberries!
  3. Drinking delicious ice cream floats!
  4. Sharing members of Adam's reptilian collection!
  5. Experiencing the energy harnessed by chemical reactions through a Diet Pepsi - Mentos geyser!

We started the morning with Kayla presenting the educational video that she had created. The video was made with the intent of making our project approachable and understandable and it allowed the campers to get an overview of the large project that we've been attempting to undertake: "Neurospora [...] proceeds to eat a variety of waste substances, this causes the Neurospora to get fatter and fatter".

Before the campers began extracting DNA from strawberries, Helena asked them about the molecule. When asked what is DNA and what does it do, these intelligent campers gave a range of responses including "it determines whether you have brown eyes or blue eyes, brown hair or blonde hair" and "it's the instructions for living things." Team Alberta was incredibly impressed when one camper was even able to tell us that "DNA is like a spirally ladder - a helix!"

But why only talk about DNA? In contrast to traditional iGEM outreach programs which generally only lecture about DNA, Team Alberta provided campers with the opportunity to see the molecule they were learning about! In our lab, campers were given the opportunity to extract DNA from purchased strawberries through an isopropanol precipitation procedure! The experiment provided campers with the opportunity not only to observe what DNA looks like to the naked eye but also to learn that DNA is found in everything living and once living, including the food that we eat. If you would like to repeat our experiment you can find the instructions here.

Next, Adam shared three members of his large reptilian collection with the campers while they enjoyed root beer floats. In addition to talking about the climates that these species live in, he also reemphasized to the campers that DNA is also found within these interesting creatures.

Energy being the focus of our project, Team Alberta wanted to complete the morning with a fun and exciting demonstration that visually allowed the campers to see the energy that could be released from chemical reactions. Ray and Mike were the brave members of our team who volunteered to exhibit that much energy could be released from the reaction of Diet Pepsi and Mentos.

Through these activities we hope that we achieved our goals of teaching the campers about the roles of DNA and the variety of organisms in which it is found, making DNA more approachable to younger individuals, and providing the campers with a memorable experience.

Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science and Technology (WISEST) Lab Tours

Students from the WISEST program visited Team Alberta over the lunch hour on two occasions. The WISEST Summer Research Program provides young women that have completed grade 11 with the opportunity to gain experience in science or engineering settings by working as research assistants throughout the summer.

Students were given a tour of our lab, a brief overview of the iGEM competition and our project itself. They were also given the opportunity to view our race tubes, to count conidia on a hemocytometer and to view an undergoing esterification reaction.

But, science is often unapproachable. Students may listen to a talk, but retain little. Instead, Team Alberta invited these students to sit down for lunch over pizza and discuss synthetic biology and perhaps any apprehensions that they may have about the field. In an informal environment, our team members described the field to students and its applications and answered any questions that were posed. Students were also provided with the opportunity to ask team members general questions about their experiences as undergrad students.

To determine whether our team had achieved its goals through conducting these lab tours, students in attendance were all sent an anonymous, voluntary electronic feedback survey. Though thirty-six WISEST students attended the tours on both days combined, nineteen students provided responses. The following is intended as a summary of the results of this survey.

WISEST students were asked to anonymously select which statements they agreed with.

Response Number of Students in Agreement (/19) Percentage
Yes, I did not know what synthetic biology was before touring the iGEM lab. 14 74%
Yes, the iGEM lab tour helped me understand what synthetic biology was in an understandable way. 18 95%
Yes, I had apprehensions about synthetic biology, genetic engineering, etc. before the iGEM lab tour. 9 47%
Yes, the iGEM lab tour made synthetic biology not "scary" to me. 18 95%
Yes, I am interested in finding out more about iGEM. 18 95%
Yes, I am interested about being on a future iGEM team. 10 53%
Yes, the iGEM lab tour was the first time I had heard about biodiesel. 3 16%
Yes, I learned something new about biofuel. 15 79%
Yes, the iGEM team members provided a good description of how their approach to biodiesel synthesis is different from traditional methods. 18 95%
Yes, I enjoyed an informal talk over lunch more than if the information was presented in a formal presentation. 18 95%
Yes, I enjoyed the lab tour. 17 89%
Yes, I enjoyed getting advice about undergrad studies. 19 100%

Given the above results of this anonymous, voluntary survey, our team is confident that we achieved all the goals that we had hoped to in conducting these tours.

Heritage Youth Researcher Summer (HYRS) Program Lab Tour

Team Alberta was also given the opportunity to share our project and knowledge about synthetic biology with students from the HYRS program. HYRS is a summer studentship program developed and funded by the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research (AHFMR) that provides both male and female students who have completed grade 11 with experience in the sciences at provincial universities.

Similarly, students were given a tour of our lab and an overview of the iGEM competition in addition to the opportunity to view the many interesting experiments conducted as part of our project such as our race tube experiments. As well, these students were invited to participate in an informal discussion about synthetic biology over over pizza and to ask questions of our team.