We believe in the importance of a balanced education for students pursuing the field of synthetic biology. Being such a new field within biological science, there are many emerging concepts, techniques, and ethical considerations that newcomers to synthetic biology will need to learn and consider in performing good scientific practice.
The objectives of the Waterloo iGEM Shad Valley Synthetic Biology Workshop is three-fold: (1) Teach secondary school students about basic genetic theory, the general idea of synthetic biology, and how genetics are linked to synthetic biology; (2) Guide students towards performing tasks in the laboratory including following lab protocols and utilizing sufficient aseptic technique; and (3) Engaging students in the importance of the impact of synthetic biology on society and teaching the students that good science goes well beyond the laboratory and research office and that ethical considerations should always be an important consideration.
I. Analyze some of the social, ethical, and legal issues associated with genetic research and biotechnology.
On the last day of the synthetic biology workshop, students underwent a shift of focus from laboratory protocol investigation, to exploring the impact of synthetic biology on society and in a more general sense, social, ethical, and legal issues associated with genetic research and biotechnology.
After introducing the students to the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing system, we asked students to imagine if they were on the 2015 Waterloo iGEM Team and were tasked with modifying plant genes using CRISPR/Cas9. It was emphasized that good science is about more than tossing on a lab coat, following a technical protocol, and publishing results in an accredited journal. Good science stems from careful analysis of the feasibility of a project as well as the ethics associated with it and its impact on the society at-large.
Once we explained the purpose of the Policy and Practices Subteam at iGEM, we engaged the students in a casual and interactive discussion period that focussed on some big questions targeted at synthetic biology and consequences that arise from its use:
- Historically, how have societies overcome controversies about new, rapidly developing technologies?
- Do synthetic biologists who are modifying organisms that are meant for human consumption have a larger responsibility for their research than most scientists? Why or why not?
- What are the benefits of genetically modified organisms (GMOs)?
- What are the potential negative effects of GMOs?
During points where the conversation would reach a standstill, iGEM team members would push the conversation forward by offering a new topic or a new argument for whatever is being discussed.
II. Demonstrate an understanding of concepts related to molecular genetics, and how genetic modification is applied in industry and agriculture.
The Waterloo iGEM lab began the Shad Valley 2016 Synthetic Biology Workshop by first providing the students with an introductory presentation on synthetic biology concepts and techniques.
The presentation began with giving the students a comprehensive definition of the term “synthetic biology” including an analysis of the field from scientific and engineering perspectives.
The presentation then proceeds to describe the key enabling technologies of synthetic biology, that is, how the experiments of the field are made possible. These include standardized DNA design, DNA synthesis, DNA sequencing, and mathematical modelling. For the students that have yet to undergo the Grade 12 University Preparation Biology course, the basic structure of DNA was reviewed to provide clarity on subsequent discussions of basic genetic theory.
In the genetic theory portion of the presentation, students reviewed the central dogma of DNA, plasmids and restriction enzymes, the BioBrick standard system, cell transformation and competent cells, cell plating, and the observation of colonies.
After the theory overview, the workshop experiment was described to the students and the presentation concluded with a note on the link between genetic manipulation and synthetic biology, as well as an important briefing on safety in the biology lab.
III. Investigate, through laboratory activities, the structures of cell components and their roles in processes that occur within the cell.
During this day of the workshop, students completed a transformation protocol to experience the power and versatility of synthetic biology first-hand.
Before the first day of the workshop, the iGEM members prepared the vectors and the inserts that the students would use in their transformations. The students then demonstrated their newfound knowledge of synthetic biology and lab safety from the laboratory presentations by accurately following the laboratory protocols given to them.
It was noted that the students were highly engaged in both the lab activities as well as the lab supervisors. The students expressed high levels of interest, especially in instances where they would ask the supervisors very meaningful questions about their laboratory tasks, as well as about the content covered in the pre-lab presentations.
Recommendations for Future Years
This experience has been a great success for both the attending students as well as the Waterloo iGEM members supervising them for the entire duration of the event.
Students showed high levels of enthusiasm and learning progress throughout the entire workshop, both during the presentations, and the laboratory sessions.
For future Shad Valley workshops, Waterloo iGEM would like to make a recommendation regarding the presentation(s) that students will undergo before and/or after their lab experience. That is, it is highly recommend that preparations be made to accurately identify which topics the students have currently covered in their studies. While the Ontario Secondary School curriculum provides a general outline and accompanying examples of what the students would learn during their current year of studies, it is important that students undergo some form of informal assessment to gauge their current levels of knowledge and understanding. Below are some recommended questions that are recommended to be asked in this survey:
- What current year are the students in?
- What courses are they currently enrolled in and have taken before?
- Briefly describe the structure of DNA.
- Briefly describe the Central Dogma of DNA.
- What do you already know about synthetic biology?
Note that it should not be expected that the students answer the last question sufficiently (if at all), since students are expected to not know much about synthetic biology before completing the workshop. This question merely aids the event organizers and the presenters in their planning so that they can better understand the students before Day 1 of interactive activities and engagement.
Another important recommendation would be to clearly communicate laboratory techniques on Day 1 in the laboratory. If the organizers feel that they would need more time to explain the concepts that the students will be utilizing throughout the workshop, time should be allotted indefinitely. A concise understanding of the experimental protocol and the techniques should take higher priority over meeting the deadline for the day. It was observed during our workshop that students learned a lot more from the experience and felt that the event was more positive when the schedule was less rushed.
Lastly, attending students should understand (at some point before the workshop begins), that the concepts learned and lab techniques used are beyond their current level of skill. The Shad Valley workshop is meant to give the students a comfortable environment to learn concepts much beyond their current studies in secondary school, and because of this, the event may seem challenging at times. Students should be advised to enter the event with an open mind and a passion to get engaged in learning. With those two essentials, the experience would become significantly more positive for the students.