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Teaching Module "Synthetic Biology" for Highschools

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Science in Action
Students at Kaiser-Karls-Gymnasium preparing vanilla pudding solution for fluorescence measurement.

In the course of our cooperation with the grade 9 biology-chemistry class at Kaiser-Karl-Gymnasium, a secondary school in Aachen, we developed a teaching module about “Synthetic Biology”. The scope of the module is 8 school classes 45 min. each. Topics include

  • sources of and exposure to microorganisms in our environment
  • antibiotic resistances
  • quorum sensing
  • fluorescence and measurement thereof
  • the bio-molecular aspect of our iGEM project.

To wrap up the module we did some career-exploration in synthetic biology and related fields.

The teaching module is suitable for the subjects biology, biology-chemistry and sciences. The students should have completed grade 8, and know about the central dogma of biology as well as protein biosynthesis. Because our work is going to be evaluated based on this wiki, we would like to take photos during the lessons. In order to publish the photos on our homepage and our wiki, we need a consent form signed by the students’ parents. If you, too, are interested in collaborating with our team write us an email at

We have carried out this teaching module in cooperation with Kaiser-Karls-Gymnasium. Here are some impressions of this collaboration:

For each of the lessons we also recorded our experience. Read about the outcome of our work below.

Lesson 1 - School Project Kick-Off

By Nina 20:48, April 28 2014 (CDT)

Today was the kick-off for the cooperation between our iGEM team and the Kaiser-Karl-Gymnasium, a secondary school in Aachen. In the upcoming weeks, exciting school lessons with members of our iGEM team await the students of the 9th grade biology-chemistry class. Different aspects of our project will be highlighted and explained to the students. Demonstrative experiments will explain the practical relevance.

In today's lesson, our members Nina and René offered the students a short impression of what to expect in the course of this teaching module. We also explained synthetic biology and the goal of our project.

Lesson 2 - iGEM team members back 2 school

By Nina 16:00, May 22 2014 (CDT)

Since our last visit, the student of the biology-chemistry course at Kaiser-Karl-Gymnasium in Aachen have been busy studying the basics of protein biosynthesis and the "lock and key" model. Now the 9th graders are prepared to have a closer look at synthetic biology and our project.

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Each year, many people die of nosocominal infections - infections that the patients acquired in a hospital. However, these infections would be preventable in large part through better hygiene programs. Diseases caused by multi-resistant pathogens are especially critical because therapy options are very limited in these cases.

But actually, what are pathogens exactly and where do they come from? In order to answer these questions, we start the teaching module with the topic "Microorganisms in our Environment". In this part, we explain which germs we encounter every day, and how be can best protect ourselves from them.

In order to demonstrate how many and which microorganisms are our steady companions, we conduct an experiment with the students. A pair of students received 3 agar plates: one with regular LB agar, one plate with agar supplemented by an antibiotic, and one selective agar plate for yeasts and fungi. Equipped with the plates, the students wander through their school and take contact samples from places they think many microorganisms grow there. We will incubate the plates over the weekend so that we can show the students in the next lesson what has grown on their samples.

Lessons 3 & 4 - Microorganisms on the rise

By Nina 16:05, May 26 2014 (CDT)

Last lesson students at Kaiser-Karl-Gymnasium took environmental samples using a variety of different contact agar plates. On the weekend, René examined the plates under the microscope and took photos. Today René and Nina presented the results of the experiment. Most of the students have been really astonished about the diverse microbial fauna found on themselves and their classroom. But first, we showed the students an excerpt from the TV show "Planetopia" that broaches the issue "Hygiene in every-day life".

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Staphylo- and micrococci as well as Enterobacteria, Candida yeasts and miscellaneous fungi are found on the majority of plates. But why is there no growth on the plates containing the antibiotic? Actually, what is an antibiotic, how does it work and why are there multi-resistant pathogens? Nina explained the answer to all these questions to the students using descriptive graphics, and concluded the topic "Microorganisms in our Environment" with a short summmary.

As a starter for our next topic that is relevant to our project, we distribute a worksheet about quorum sensing among the students. For the remainder of the lesson, the students read the text and begin to answer the attached questions.

Lessons 5 & 6 - Glowing Vanilla Pudding

By Nina 16:16, June 02 2014 (CDT)

The topics of today's double lesson was quorum sensing as well as measurement of fluorescence. At the beginning of class, the students form 6 groups and start an experiment dealing with fluorescence: Each group weighs and dissolves 4g of vanilla pudding powder in 50mL of water. While conducting the experiment, each group is supervised by a member of our iGEM team.

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While we give the powder some time to dissolve, René discusses the worksheet about quorum sensing that we gave out to the students last week. In doing so, the students learn what quorum sensing actually is, how it is used in different ways by a variety of bacteria, and how we want to use this function for our project.

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Meanwhile the powder had dissolved in the water. Excess powder accumulated at the bottom of the beaker. Using a syringe, the students suck 2mL of supernatant out of the beaker, and press it through a filter into a cuvette. A part of our project involves the development of a fluorescence measurement device named Cellock Holmes. Each group of students at a time places its cuvette in the Cellock Holmes prototype, and notes down the values displayed on the cellphone display. Of course, each group also measures the fluorescence of a positive (pure riboflavin in water) and a negative (chalk dust in water) control.

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While the other groups wait for their turn, their supervisors explain the background of this experiment: The electrons in some molecules change into energy states when irradiated with electromagnetic waves. When returning to the normal state, the electrons dissipate excess energy, also in the form of electromagnetic radiation. This process is called fluorescence. Vanilla pudding contains the molecule riboflavin (vitamin B2). When riboflavin is irradiated with blue light, the molecule fluoresces green. The intensity of the green light is visually recorded by our device. Special software processes the data and the measured value is displayed on the cellphone connected to the device via Bluetooth. We will discuss the results of the experiment next class.

Lesson 7 - Teaching Module Wrap-Up

By Nina 16:32, June 05 2014 (CDT)

Today Nina and Arne discussed last class's experiment. Arne explained to the students the meaning behind the values measured, and how the students can use the value to determine the concentration of riboflavin in their vanilla pudding samples.

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Subsequently, Nina explained the students how we are going to manipulate regular E. coli cells, using synthetic biology methods, to carry out the desired functions. The students also learned, what role promoters play in gene regulation, and how our iGEM team wants to regulate the expression of the genes artificially inserted into the E. coli cells.

Now we have individually discussed all aspects of our project. Therefore, Nina summarized all the topic together with the students, and outlined the link between all these different topics and our iGEM project idea. In doing so, we almost arrived at the end of our teaching module "Synthetic Biology". Next class, we will visit the biology-chemistry course of Kaiser-Karl-Gymnasium for the last time, and do some career-exploration in synthetic biology and related fields.

Lesson 8 - Students Explore Careers in Synthetic Biology

By Nina 21:11, June 12 2014 (CDT)

Our "Synthetic Biology" teaching module has come to an end. Today was our last day at Kaiser-Karl-Gymnasium in Aachen, where we have worked together with a grade 9 biology-chemistry class for past 1 1/2 months. The students have learned about the iGEM and synthetic biology in general. We presented our project to the class, and explained various aspects for our endeavour in more detail.

To give interested students some overview of how they can get involved in synthetic biology, Vera, Florian, Ansgar and Björn gave short presentations about each university program at RWTH represented in our team: Biology, Biotechnology, Computational Engineering Science and Informatics, respectively. We gave them examples for typical classes and specialization options as well as career perspectives in each program.


While discussing some more career perspectives, we handed an evaluation sheet out to each student. This way the class could give us some feedback about our work, and leave some comments on what they liked best and what we can still improve on. On average, the students gave us an A (1,9 or 87%) for the teaching module. We are really happy about this great mark, and will try to improve on all the things the students suggested.

Unfortunately, the bell already rang when the students finished handing in their evaluation sheets. However, some students still followed our invitation to stay after class to ask more questions about paths into synthetic biology, and for some cookies.

Overall, all parties seemed really satisfied with our collaboration and we are looking forward to repeating the teaching module with other high school classes!