Public Perception Survey
Results were collated from the 65 people who filled out our short "Public Perceptions in Science" survey. There were two main areas which concerned us: it was apparent that many people did not know exactly what synthetic biology was, or its real life applications. Those that could provide examples of research or technology in the field were quick to highlight its negative portrayal across different forms of media. The lack of knowledge observed was not ignorance, but stemmed from the fact that this area of science is relatively new and the research being done in the field is not being effectively communicated to the public. This is a key issue that was discussed in the survey.
What are your main concerns when it comes to synthetic biology?
Do scientists do a good job of communicating their research to the public?
To promote understanding of synthetic biology it will be important to introduce it and its benefits at an earlier stage of education, and ideally include it in the school syllabus. The students will be the next generation of synthetic biologists and in turn can drive the development of public understanding regarding this area of science.
On Friday the 11th September the team held a Synthetic Biology Outreach Event in the Department of Plant Sciences, Cambridge. The event was aimed at sixth form students with the hope that it may encourage the students to pursue their interests in STEM and also highlight a possible area of study that they may not have considered. Students from two schools attended the event: Long Road Sixth Form College, Cambridge and The Judd, Tonbridge. The day was split into 3 sessions: a presentation introducing synthetic biology, a workshop on programming with Arduinos and a workshop on microscopy.
Tom Almeroth-Williams, a reporter from a local news outlet published a report on the day. The article can be seen here.
Objectives of the Day
To define and explain synthetic biology, and highlight its applications.
To explore how microscopy can be a useful tool in the field of synthetic biology, and to provide basic microscopy skills.
To gain experience in the different ways in which microscopy can be used.
To gain hands on experience building and programming open source hardware.
An introduction on what synthetic biology is and its real world applications was given in a short presentation. The iGEM competition was emphasised as a way in which undergraduates and even high school students can get involved in synthetic biology projects, while advancing the field through international collaboration and increasing public awareness. The knowledge the team had gained during the project was shared by focusing on the use of fluorescence microscopy as a tool for quantitative measurement in synthetic biology.
For students thinking of doing scientific courses at university, experience in the practical aspect of science is extremely important. It forms a much more significant part of university courses than a typical school syllabus.
Students imaging different samples using the brightfield microscopes
The students got hands on experience using 4 different types of microscope:
Brightfield microscopy (Nikon Labophot microscopes)
Since many of the students had used these microscopes before it allowed them to revise basic techniques while imaging some interesting new samples. The students could make their own slides with animal cells (cheek cells) and plant cells (Marchantia). There were also some pre-prepared samples that they could compare. Dr Tim Weil (Department of Zoology, Cambridge) kindly provided us with various Drosophila samples to image. This was definitely a favourite part for the students. They were able to prepare live larvae samples and watch their peristaltic movement under the microscope. They were also able to dissect the flies, in order to look at their separate body parts such as the compound eyes and wings. This was a fantastic opportunity to introduce them to Drosophila as a model organism, and the research that it facilitates.
Drosophila larvae and whole Drosophila imaged under bright-field
Fluorescence microscopy (Nikon Eclipse 50i with Arc Lamp)
With school budgets unlikely to stretch to the cost of a fluorescent microscope none of students had used one before. In order to demonstrate the microscope’s capabilities, samples of Drosophila ovaries where imaged with green, blue and red fluorescent labels. We explained how the different sizes (and fluorescent intensities) of the nuclei of the nurse cells and the follicle cells (fig. 3) were based on transcriptional activity. Different labeling techniques, namely GFP fusion constructs, fluorescent dyes and cytoskeletal drugs were discussed. For us, it was brilliant to be able to talk to the school students about science that they would normally only come across in an undergraduate course.
Drosphila embryos stained with DAPI (Excitation 405, Blue)
The Department of Earth Sciences, Cambridge were able to provide a Petrographic microscope and some thin sections of rock for sampling at the workshop. This special microscope is used to look at crystals and minerals. It contains two polarising filters, placed at 90° to each other, so no light can pass through. However, when a rock sample is placed between these filters, the crystals within the rock can change the polarisation of the light, allowing some light to pass through the second polariser. A lot of crystals have different refractive indices in different planes and this brings about an interesting property called “birefringence”. The students were able to see beautiful examples of this and gain information of the rock's history – from volcanic eruptions to the deep ocean.
Gabbro under the microscope and the different rock samples
The students got the chance to preview the team’s microscope working in brightfield and try out the new Webshell, which gives a live stream from the microscope and allows motorised control. The students were very interested in the 3D printer. This lead to a discussion on how low cost, open-source versions such as RepRap might be appropriate for a school laboratory.
The worksheet for our microscopy workshop can be found here.
This workshop offered the students an introduction to programming using small microprocessors, called Arduinos. A short presentation on the basics of programming - how to do it and the logic behind it - was followed by a set of 4 increasingly difficult exercises. The students were expected to wire up and code parts of the Arduinos themselves. The students also had the chance to explore the uses of the Arduinos by playing with the extra parts available. One pair made a working motor, onto which they attached a wooden wheel. They then rubbed the graphite from a pencil around the edges and used this as an art tool to do some creative drawings.
The Arduino set up for one of the exercises and one of the students wiring up his own Arduino
Having a basic knowledge of programming is becoming an essential tool in scientific lab research. Being able to program and control microprocessors such as Arduinos can significantly reduce human input into experiments and allow for mundane tasks to be carried out automatically and consistently. The students were not aware of the kind of automation possible with these kind of microprocessors and it was rewarding to see them come up with ways that they could see them being used.
We have made the teaching resources available online, too:
Introduction to Arduino [booklet]
The students found the Arduino exercises particularly fun, asking where they could buy their own and saying they'd suggest to their teachers they get some for teaching purposes. The overall feedback from the microscopy workshop was similarly positive. They loved the live samples in particular, and were able to get some great photos using our microscope-mobile phone adapter. In addition, we were happy to answer any questions they had about our project, the workshops and university in general.
The Graduate Session
A last minute drop out from one of the schools attending the event meant that a second programming with Arduinos session was opened up to graduates from the Life Sciences Departments. The workshop was run the same as with the sixth form students.
Although the workshop lasted just a day, we hoped that it would inspire the students and that they could take something away from the day. To continue the outreach outside of the event:
We have provided all students who attended the event a detailed set of lecture notes on basic programming, a programming cheat sheet and a booklet on getting started with Arduinos.
We plan to take the presentation and Arduino workshop to Long Road Sixth Form to give to all the science students. The teacher was very keen for this, stating that what we were introducing is not covered in the curriculum, but would be extremely useful to the students.
All the resources that we made are available on the wiki and easily replicable so that anyone is free to use them to hold their own event.
All of the Teaching resources can also be found on the Downloads page.