Team:Paris Bettencourt/Practices/SynBio Challenge

Synbio challenge


We love education and communicate synbio to the next generation of scientists. Following the work of last years’ iGEM team, the continued working with high schools and made a contest to integrate high school students in our team.The SynBio challenge was carried out in three Paris high schools, and sought to introduce high schoolers to synthetic biology. Students were taught basic synthetic biology principles and techniques, and were then split into groups with the challenge of developing and carrying out a project in the lab. Two students were chosen as winners of this challenge, winning the prize of being members of the iGEM team this year. Not only have these students significantly contributed to the iGEM project, but they will travel with the team to Boston in order to participate in the iGEM Jamboree.


Two Paris high schools, Lycée Valée de la Chevreuse, and  Lycée Marie Curie, took part in the SynBio challenge, with 22 students participating. The students were taught basic concepts of synthetic biology, about iGEM, and performed experiments independently in the lab, monitored by us. Selected students came back to our lab and  about this year’s iGEM project. Interested students then formed groups and brainstorm different projects, allowing the students to learn through doing, and to exercise their creativity.

Figure 1:Photo of the synbio challenge event.

The students were approached several months prior to the competition. They came from different schools and were between 16 and 20 years old. We talked to them about synthetic biology, about iGEM, and about our project this year. Then the students who wanted to participate designed experiments that they wanted to do, and we opened our lab to them for 4 days, providing them material and feedback for their experiments. At the end of the 4 days, each team of students presented their experiments and results, in front of high school students, the iGEM team, OSS, teachers, and professional researchers in life sciences.

Figure 2:Photo of the synbio challenge event.


The students were welcomed to the lab and were given a short introduction about iGEM, synthetic biology and what they were going to do during the day. The students that participated in this workshop were from 15 to 20 years old, with a big range of levels of knowledge about synthetic biology and DNA. Right after the introduction, we made working groups of about 4 to 5 people (that is about 5 groups from the 22 attendees that we welcomed). We put an special attention to have mixity of knowledge, gender, characters and age in order to best contribute to the later discussion.

Figure 3:In the introduction, the students attended small pitches about interesting topics related to iGEM and synbio.

The students brainstormed to find ideas for short experiments in a similar way as iGEM teams would do. They were helped by mediators when they had questions and did not know how to follow. Then they were advised in the lad and helped to perform they own experiments. Materials were provided if they were included in a laboratory class 1 normal reagents / strains. Some of the experiments were obviously not related to synthetic biology, given the time that the students were given. For example, one of the students was thinking about modifying sea bacteria so that they could protect corals from being dissolved in the increasingly acidic environment of the oceans. He could not test this but he dissolved corals in different pH concentration and saw how much it was degraded as a foundational experiment.

Figure 4:Using creative and artistic materials, the students were encouraged to brainstorm, sharing their ideas and build projects with the help of facilitators.

The students has the opportunity to showcase their work, that was celebrated in the social media and by the academic community. Our work with the students was celebrated as a pedagogic innovation in the websites of the academic authorities of the French departments concerned. The event was a big success and the students managed to put all their projects online.

Figure 5:The students also had the opportunity to share their results and experience with a broader audience in the “Futur en Seine” event, a innovation, science and technological event that is held every year in the city of Paris.

Results and perspectives

Policy can encourage society to make this step in a broader way, for example, in the services that are provided by the state, like public education. Education has been a reflection of the organization of society at any point of history. From indoctrinating to promoting critical reasoning, from gender or race segregation to an enhanced diversity, school has largely evolved to become a more inclusive and democratic place. Yet, some aspects like interdisciplinarity, transversality, or self-management are not fully developed in many of the national curriculums in the EU states. Bringing a more democratic organization to schools and learning centers will probably help young citizens to understand the importance of public engagement.

Research practices in high school education provide an excellent case study for this topic. In the final years before they are going to be allowed to vote and be elected, students should experience the meaning of democracy and management. Research practices can be defined as self-managed research, collaborative, international, learning by doing, exploratory, and creative. In research workshops with this kind of students, techniques of inverse pedagogy can help the teacher to come down the step and assume a role of mediator or facilitator to the minimal expression. Students then can decide what to learn in an education based on projects and not on subjects, that prioritizes critical reasoning and creativity, in an international background.

Following the principle of social justice, this would provide the students with the critical reasoning necessary for the functioning of a democratic institution and therefore equality of opportunities to chose their representatives or participate in the decision-making processes.

Figure 6:Testimonies of students and teachers participating in the project.

Figure 7:New concepts introduced for the students. We are trying to develop a new paradigm of education that changes the role of the teacher to be a facilitator of learning rather than a director of studies.