Imperial iGEM 2014


Outreach, both for our project and for synthetic biology as a whole formed an important part of our project this summer. We engaged with students at varying levels of their education in order to broaden their view of biology within STEM.

Engineering Biology (Year 10) - 31/07/14

The students brainstorming

Our first piece of public engagement was running a STEM workshop with Year 10 students on an Insights into Science and Engineering Summer School. This focussed on giving students an introduction to Synthetic Biology and how this is being used to solve global problems.

We gave a brief talk on various aspects of Synthetic Biology which included an explanation of what it was, the engineering aspects as well as some of the ethics involved. It was interesting to see that whilst many had heard of genetic engineering, none had heard of SynBio before and were especially interested in how it differed. We also incorporated a classic and simple DNA extraction example into the workshop, using strawberries and bleach.

To engage the students with what Synthetic Biology could be used to achieve we had a brainstorming session where groups came up with a major world problem to tackle. Members of the iGEM team then worked with these groups to come up with solutions, encouraging novel approaches using SynBio but also discussing when other solutions may be more appropriate. We felt that this best showed that science not only impacts but is also part of society. The students really enjoyed this approach and we had a lot of positive feedback.

Mathematics in Biology (Year 12) - 05/08/14

An important part of synthetic biology is the use of modelling to design, predict and improve biological systems created in the lab. However the pre-uni teaching of biology does not touch upon the importance of in-silico work. In this second workshop we sought to introduce the synthetic biology and the importance mathematics and modelling to Year 12 students.

We used Cell Designer to show how basic biological processes such as enzyme kinetics could be designed on a computer. We then let the students modify the network parameters and helped them understand what graphs they produced. This tied in with what they already understood about chemical and enzyme catalysed reactions from their A-level work.

The students presenting their ideas

Again none of the students had heard of synthetic biology before. Most had not had any experience of using mathematics in biology. Feedback from the session was positive and highlighted an important gap in current biology education.

STEM Pathways Conference - 07/08/14

Following our well-received work with the summer schools we were invited to to participate in a STEM Pathways Summer School conference with over a hundred students attending. Alongside a range of professionals, academics and researchers we talked to the students about our experiences of university, science and engineering.

We discussed the requirements of STEM subjects and how to get involved with projects such as iGEM. The students were surprised that it was possible for undergraduates to get involved with proper scientific research.

Science Museum Exhibition: Engineer Your Future - 10/09/14

The bioengineers in the team were invited by Suzy Antoniw (Science Museum) to provide insight into how a systems engineering approach is used to tackle problems in biology. We talked about how we were all inspired to pursue a degree in engineering and specifically in bioengineering. The input we provided will contribute to an exhibition later in the year encouraging young people into engineering.