The UCLA iGEM Team is committed to being an advocate for the universal advancement and acceptance of synthetic biology, and we believe that progress through the field can only be achieved by informing and teaching the youth of our society. As such, our Human Practices project centers around education of Los Angeles youth to show them the potential of synthetic biology, and furthermore think of the implications and ethics behind scientific progress and research.
This year, we worked with Nava College Prep Academy, a school community founded and run school in East Los Angeles to inspire high school students and help them explore the world of synthetic biology. Our project consisted of a two day workshop, the first of which took place at UCLA and the latter in East Los Angeles.
The first workshop was centered around providing an introduction to synthetic biology, as the high school students were about to embark on a month long synthetic biology unit in their science class. We shared our previous work with our 2015 iGEM project-the customization and functionalization of synthetic silk fibers, as well as the foundation the 2016 project. Following a short presentation about the Central Dogma of Biology, genetic circuitry, and gene expression, we then asked the students to apply what the learned to manipulate genetic circuits and create bi-stable switches using parts we provided for them. Many of the students were very eager and engaged with the activity, almost viewing it like a puzzle-in a very similar way that we as researchers approach our own projects! We concluded the workshop with a tour of our lab space and a Q&A panel, giving the students a chance to ask any questions they had about research or synthetic biology.
Our second workshop occurred at the conclusion of the students' synthetic biology unit, and as such we chose to focus on inspiring their creativity and innovation. After a short presentation about cool technologies and projects that have arisen out of synthetic biology today, we had the students think about what the world would like look in the frame of synthetic biological and biotechnological advances. The students, armed with new knowledge about the power of synthetic biology, were able to harness into its potential and come up with many cool ideas-from GMOs that could withstand any kind of weather and terrain, to making new wacky species of animals that are crosses of other species. It was really awe-inspiring to see the young people of our society thinking creatively about science, and furthermore how many of these students wanted to pursue careers in the sciences. Following this brainstorming activity, we held a Socratic seminar-like activity focused on bioethics and thinking about the implications and consequences of synthetic biology and progress. It was impressive how many students were able to think critically about the situation, but also hold positive outlooks and convincing arguments for science and research.
We believe our Human Practices project has had a highly positive influence on these students, and while our direct impact is small, our reach does not stop there. Our education for these students will inevitably prompt further discussion and creativity not only for those we worked with, but those who these students come into contact with. Whether it be at home, when they tell their families and friends about what the learned at school, to years from now when they enter college and embark on the same journeys as we at UCLA iGEM have.