Team:Cornell NY/Engagement

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Some things are meant to be kept private, but our 2016 iGEM project on mastitis was meant to be shared. We seized some of our most unique outreach opportunities yet this past year, working with a science museum, educating underprivileged youth, and being put on a public stage at the Great New York State Fair. We aimed not to demonstrate but to engage, having conversations about mastitis and synthetic biology.

Humans and SynBio

“What is synthetic biology to you?”

Here’s what they told us.

The Great NY State Fair

1 million people. The Great NY State Fair is called great for a reason--it sees a huge influx of people every summer. New York State is one of the top five agricultural producers in the country, and so agriculture is rightfully showcased at the fair. The fair served not only as a place where we could raise awareness about synthetic biology, but also, in light of the agricultural focus, the perfect field to showcase our mastitis project.

We were stationed at a booth near the Youth Building, one of the main attractions for youth and their parents at the fair. As people came through--people from all over New York, Pennsylvania, and other neighboring states--we engaged them with an activity from Building with Biology, an initiative funded by the National Science Foundation.

The activity, called the “Kit of Parts,” illustrated synthetic biology as a way to put different pieces together to solve a problem. After the activity, we asked them to participate in our photo campaign known as “Humans and SynBio”, inspired by Humans of New York.

4-H Career Explorations Conference

Along with mentoring elementary school students in synthetic biology through the YOURS Mentorship Program, our team also worked with 8th graders who participated in the 4-H Career Explorations Conference. The purpose of this conference is to help middle schoolers explore their interests in different career paths, and the theme for this year’s conference was entrepreneurship. Our workshops aimed to introduce the concept of synthetic biology, to bridge the gap between synthetic biology and entrepreneurship, and to foster collaboration among students in order to solve a problem together.

Many of the students in our workshops were not exposed to most of these concepts, let alone entrepreneurship in the context of synthetic biology. However, within the span of a 90-minute workshop of brainstorming and asking questions to help them further their ideas, they were able to grasp the idea of how a science-related idea can be turned into a product that could be brought to market. The 8th graders’ creativity and imagination came to the fore as they delivered their pitches for their products, and while we guided them in turning an idea involving synthetic biology to one related to business, they taught us that the possibilities of joining synthetic biology and entrepreneurship together are endless.

The prompt for each of our workshops was the following:

You are a group of entrepreneurs at a company. The wet lab team has engineered bacteria that can remove carbon dioxide from the air. Think of a business idea that will implement these bacteria in the real world and deliver a 5 minute pitch.

  • Your pitch should answer all, if not more, of the following:
    • • What does your device do?
    • • How is it different from existing devices? What is new about it?
    • • How do you plan on convincing consumers to buy it?
    • • Come up with a catchy name!
    • • Design a visual for your product!
  • Some of the ideas that our students came up with included:
    • • A box that would separate car exhaust into carbon dioxide in one compartment and other components of the exhaust into another compartment, store carbon dioxide, and release the good emissions from the exhaust

    • • A small wooden box that can be placed in a variety of locations that can trap carbon dioxide, separate it into carbon and oxygen, and release the oxygen into the air
  • Thoughts from our 8th graders about the workshops:
    • • “The workshop made me more interested in entrepreneurship. I want to learn more about it.”
    • • “My favorite part of the workshop was making our own product because it was challenging at times but turned out to be fun.”
    • • “My favorite part was working in groups because of the collaboration.”
    • • “I liked creating an idea to help the environment.”

YOURS Program

The future of science is dependent on inspiring the next generation to develop a passion for observation, discovery, and creation. We wanted to help instill a love of science in the children of our local community at Cornell. We partnered with the 4H Dryden OURS (Opportunity, Understanding, Respect, Success) program of Tompkins County, run by Cornell Cooperative Extension, and participated in the YOURS (Youth Outreach Undergraduates Reshaping Success) program. The children we worked with were from mobile park homes in nearby Freeville, New York. They were between 8 and 11 years old and chose to participate in the program because they wanted to learn more about science.

The goal of our program was simple: to make biology and engineering fun while teaching about our project dealing with mastitis. For 6 weeks, students visited our classroom and lab space at Cornell for 2 hours. They were taught concepts in science through visuals and hands-on demonstrations. Every class included activities and experiments in which the students applied their new knowledge, seeing the power of science in action. We emphasized the ideology of learning through doing. Each student was paired with a mentor who was part of the Cornell iGEM team. This personal connection made students’ experiences with science all the more meaningful.

Week Lesson Plan
1 To begin, we gave students a survey to gauge their interests and previous knowledge. We then gave them an introduction to the science of biology and the concept of genetic engineering. We introduced how our team works in the field of synthetic biology, and subsequently introduced our project dealing with mastitis. After we talked about the importance of measurements in scientific experiments, the students measured out water and food coloring using graduated cylinders and micropipettes. Throughout, the students gained an understanding of the properties of water that cause a meniscus to form. They learned how to properly label a tube with necessary information.
2 In this lesson we talked about DNA. Students created drawings of the double-helix structure of DNA, and then extracted DNA from strawberries. During the DNA extraction, the students also learned about emulsifiers and the role of soap in the experiment. They learned why DNA is called the blueprint for the body and how iGEM uses different techniques to change DNA to achieve our goal. After protein was extracted from both regular milk and soy milk, the structure and function of the protein in the body were discussed.
3 The purpose of this week’s lesson was to learn about the separation of molecules. We extracted the colors from different types of candy and permanent markers. Then students loaded a gel to separate the molecules using gel electrophoresis, and also performed paper chromatography on their samples. They learned why certain molecules move faster than others and hence separate. The concepts were reinforced with a modified game of tag with the mentors. The class ended with a demonstration of the Marangoni effect in water using soap, and floating a bread tie on water. This built on the previous week’s discussion of the properties of water, and this week the students learned more about surface tension.
4 We moved from a biology focus to talk about engineering, since that is a big part of what our team does. This week the students created a contraption to allow an egg to survive 20-foot, 40-foot, and 60-foot drops. Before starting, we discussed Newton’s three laws of motion and why the egg broke when it fell. This gave the students a scientific basis on which they could build an approach for saving the egg. Students went through the process of identifying a problem, brainstorming solutions, designing a concept, budgeting materials (through a point system), building under timed conditions, and testing a prototype. The act of deliberately using logic to solve a problem was emphasized. The students enjoyed creating physical models of their ideas. The activity was followed by a discussion of how iGEM uses engineering concepts to tackle biology-related issues.
5 This week we wanted to showcase our project’s impact and connection to the real world. We brought the children and mentors to Cornell’s Vet Dairy Teaching Barn and were given a tour of the facility by the director. Students were able to see and pet the cows and learn about milk production and processing. They also saw the milking process take place and the tanks where the milk is stored. They learned about milking and dry periods, and the different types of feed and antibiotics, and met baby calves. There was a discussion of mastitis and how it affects cows as well as milk production at a farm. We talked about how iGEM was going to tackle the problem in a multifaceted approach, using bacteriocins, a new milking shell, and an app for farmers.
6 To further the children’s understanding of the dairy industry, this week we visited,the Cornell Dairy Bar, an on-campus ice creamery that serves dairy products made from milk produced at the Dairy Learning Barn. The students got to see the facility where the ice cream is made, which was full of interactive displays and videos to learn from. The students then enjoyed ice cream from the Dairy Bar, amazed with the understanding that the ice cream was made from the same milk they saw the previous week. We finished the program with one last fun experiment with chemical reactions. Students saw the reaction between vinegar and baking soda, and then tried to capture the chemical energy released as mechanical energy by blowing up balloons with the reaction. They tinkered with different set-ups and amounts of reactants. Students enjoyed using logic and the understanding of the reaction to figure out how to get the largest balloons. The YOURS program ended with a fun game of tag with the mentors and superlative awards for all of the students.


Building with Biology is a project which provides activities that nurture conversations about synthetic biology. 200 kits were awarded to museums and organizations across the country, and the Cornell iGEM team received one of them! Each recipient is required to host an event, so we partnered with the Sciencenter, a local science museum in Ithaca, NY.

The Sciencenter was one of the project partners that founded Building with Biology, and Cornell iGEM has worked closely with the Sciencenter for the past two years, participating in the Building with Biology pilot event in 2015 and now returning for this year’s events. During the day, youth and their families came by to engage in activities ranging from making DNA necklaces to creating their own cell. We talked with not only children, but also their parents, and offered our thoughts while hearing their opinions on synthetic biology.

Research Symposiums, Student Education & Public Awareness Events

SILS Presentation: Every summer the Office of Undergraduate Biology at Cornell University runs summer events as part of a program called the Summer Institute of Life Sciences. At the end of the summer, there is a culmination symposium. This year our team chose to give a 10-minute presentation at the sixth annual SILS symposium. We talked about the issue of mastitis and current treatment options, and then described our approach using bacteriocins, a new milking shell, and an app for farmers. This opportunity to share our work with the Cornell community and visiting summer student researchers also gave us a chance to get valuable feedback from professors during the question and answer session.

BioEXPO: The Cornell iGEM team presented at the annual BioExpo poster symposium hosted by the Biomedical Engineering Students Organization at Cornell University. The poster session features student research in a wide variety of areas in the biological sciences on campus. We had the opportunity to share last year's and this year's project with professors, graduate students, undergraduates from all disciplines, and the Cornell community. In the process, we were able to share with others the possibilities of applying synthetic biology to solve real-world problems.

RAWExpo: RAWExpo is an annual event at Cornell meant to showcase the work of creators in all disciplines. iGEM attended and shared our work engineering life through synthetic biology. At our display we showcased last year’s project FishPHARM, and discussed our ideas for this year’s project concerning mastitis. It was a good opportunity for Cornell iGEM to frame our project as products intended for use by consumers. The dialogue among other groups of creators in the Cornell community, ranging from engineers building planes to design students creating fashion lines to architecture students designing structures, was beneficial for our team, and helped us more thoroughly consider the users of our project and the aesthetics of the final deliverables of our work.

ENGRG 1050: ENGRG 1050 is a course that all freshman engineers at Cornell are required to take. It is an opportunity to get adjusted to campus, to meet fellow students who are in similar majors, to ask upperclassmen questions, and to learn about applications to project teams such as iGEM. We presented about what we do and how to join iGEM and answered questions from the freshmen.

Lab Tours: Every year, the Cornell Office of Undergraduate Biology hosts a science outreach program for the incoming freshmen on campus who are part of the Prefreshman Summer Program (PSP). A variety of project teams, such as iGEM, and undergraduate scientists give lab tours and participate in a panel discussion where the incoming freshmen can learn what it is like to work in a lab and how to get involved in science on campus. We showed freshmen around our lab, including specific equipment and their purposes, talked them through what iGEM is and what our past and present projects are, and answered any questions they had about how to get involved in science at Cornell. Many of the prefreshmen showed great interest in joining a project team or doing research on campus.

Splash! At Cornell: Splash! At Cornell is a unique opportunity in which high schoolers come to take classes at Cornell for a day. The classes, all taught by Cornell students, range from your typical math and history topics to dancing and video games. With the motto “teach anything, learn anything”, Splash! is a place where we get to share what we are a passionate about - and what better topic than synthetic biology? We taught a 50 minute course titled “Unveil the Mysteries of Synthetic Biology” and went through cool applications of synbio. We presented a brief overview of our 2015 iGEM project and then loaded gels for a hands on activity. While the attendees were waiting to practice loading a gel, they had a discussion of the ethics of engineering bacteria.