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Our lab is very active in promoting outreach to local students and teachers.  We routinely host high school biology classes and have the students perform a range of experiments in molecular biology and synthetic biology.

A generous grant from the Virginia Space Grant Consortium allowed us to develop a series of exercises and lesson plans for teachers to instruct students in the exciting field of synthetic biology.  These exercises show how essential the field of synthetic biology is for future space travel -- and the benefits will extend to those still on planet earth.  

Please contact Margaret Saha ( for more information and for scheduling to use these activites in your classroom.


Reflections: From Student Funded by VSGC

The Virginia Space Grant Consortium Mini-Proposal funded my work in community outreach and engagement as a part of William & Mary’s undergraduate iGEM team. Under the initial guidance of Chancellor Professor Margaret Saha I conducted research on synthetic biology, current NASA initiatives, and Virginia Standards of Learning. The work, completed with the support of this grant, has impacted how synthetic biology is presented in Virginia classrooms and community discussions. In addition to this, the opportunity created by this funding has aided in my professional development and has helped me refine both technical and soft skills which will be vital to my future career success. 

During the 10-week summer portion of the project I was able to completed the foundational research which still drives many of our projects today as well as develop and refine many of the educational materials we continue to use and distribute. The outreach activities held over the summer were not only beneficial for the communities who participated, but also provided ample opportunities to learn from students, educators, and the general public about how to best engage individuals in synthetic biology outreach. My focus for these engagement activities was to create synthetic biology lessons which teach bioengineering techniques and then utilize current NASA projects, such as long term space travel, as a contextual framework to excite students. The lessons take students through three stages of exploration. The first, encourages students to reflect on their background understanding of biology and DNA, the second stages builds upon this foundational knowledge and introduces synthetic biology techniques like CRISPR/Cas, in the final stage, students are asked to apply the new techniques they have learned, as well as their own personal knowledge from other fields to a case study. The case studies selected focused on long term space travel and potential colonization of Mars. They presenting challenges like; the creation Martian shelters, sustainable food production, water reclamation in space, and the production of medicines or fuels away from Earth. The goal is to promote intellectual curiosity and creativity, particularly with younger student. With the support of an undergraduate team I have been able to present these lessons to a variety of audiences and through a variety of mediums during the summer and into the academic year. 

Most frequently, I have worked with secondary students. When working with large groups, I have given more formal presentations followed by group discussions. These have been successful with groups of middle school students interested in STEM and a cohort of Model United Nations High school students. This style encourages students to share ideas with one another, receive peer feedback and then continue building on their ideas and solutions. An added benefit of using this large group discussion format is the opportunities for students to share their personal expertise. Students bring ideas from their environmental science classes, physics, chemistry, social studies and mathematics to adapt one each others proposals. The creative ideas that have come out of these young student groups include, building homes out of the ice found on Mars, using bioengineered bacteria to break down potential toxins in Martian regolith and using synthetic biosensors to detect small levels of remaining toxin.  

Similar public forum style events have been hosted for the general public and put on in several nursing homes around Williamsburg. These events provide an opportunity for William & Mary researchers and members from all areas of the public to come together and share their hopes and concerns for synthetic biology advancements. This dialogue is key to reducing stigma and fear that often hinders scientific innovations and it provides valuable information regarding public perception of bioengineering. With these forums we have participants from a variety of backgrounds, bringing knowledge from a multitude of professional fields and personal histories. Especially when ethics become a topic of discussion the diversity in the group makes for exciting conversation. These programs in particular were met with enthusiasm, and many of the adult participants over the summer request additional opportunities to engage with the research community. To accommodate this interest an additional presentation and forum is scheduled for February with a particularly active retirement community, and another program is schedule for the general public in March. 

Beyond exciting discussions, the support from this grant has made hands on laboratory experiences possible for many students. Middle school camps, high school biology classes, local girl scouts, and the Williamsburg homeschool community have all visited our labs. During a visit students are taken through the same stages of, reflection on past knowledge, introduction of new technology, and brainstorming and collaborating on new ideas for the presented challenge. However, when students visit lab these stages are made even more interactive by coupling topics with experiments. Under the guidance of undergraduate volunteers, students get practice with, gel electrophoresis, restriction digests, PCR, gram stains, and even testing their own soil samples from home for novel phage. During these classes students are often asking questions about the limitations of synthetic biology and when ultimately presented with the challenges of the space travel they are eager to push the boundaries of biology to create novel solutions. Some of the most interesting and exciting ideas so far include editing the human genome to make humans resistant radiation outside of Earth’s atmosphere or editing photosynthetic bacteria to create a food source. The instructors and parents of students who have participated in these hands on experiences frequently comment that their students had a new found excitement for science and curiosity about the possibilities of synthetic biology. These experiences are invaluable tools for inspiring another generation of students engaged in scientific research, and promote creative problem solving in STEM. 

The last group of students I worked with during this project were three high schoolers who participated in a mentorship program, visiting the lab regularly for several weeks. The program gave these students a unique opportunity to learn about undergraduate research, practice lab techniques and develop research skills in a university setting. Students were coached by various student researchers depending on their interests. For the research component students were asked to investigate and present on a synthetic biology solution to a long term space travel challenge. Unlike many of the other teaching experiences, these students had several weeks to brainstorm and develop ideas. Working with these high school students throughout their creative process helped me to see what topics were most interesting to younger students, and how students without a synthetic biology backgrounds approach the challenge after recently being introduced to bioengineering. The feedback provided by these students helped me refine lessons, develop realistic expectations for student understanding, and select material students would find most engaging.  

Although in person outreach projects are a substantial part of our engagement efforts, I wanted to insure this project impacted more than just the students who could get to our labs. Much of the educational tools and materials that were created over the summer are ready for implementation in general classrooms. To help facilitate the integration of synthetic biology lessons in Virginia public schools we have begun a partnership with the Virginia Department of Education. Virginia teachers develop lesson plans based on the Virginia Standards of Learning which outline learning objectives and a set curriculum which will be evaluated on state exams. Through our work with the Virginia Department of Education, we have assured that both the techniques and ethical implications of synthetic biology will be represented in the updated standards which begins implementation in the 2019-2020 school year. The standard that I helped to write was voted on by the Virginia Board of Education in October and was passed. The rough draft of the curriculum framework, which provides additional details and guidelines for teachers, was sent to me for review in December and I sent it back with revisions in January. A link to the first set of iGEM’s synthetic biology teaching materials is included as a resources in the curriculum framework alongside links for materials produced by HHMI, McGraw-Hill virtual labs and other online education tools. I am currently working to make the rest of this summers research and lesson plans available for teachers.

            One concern presented during our work with the Virginia Department of Education’s science coordinator, was the 8 year wait between curriculum updates. During this 8-year period numerous advancements and discoveries are made in STEM fields which means many students may be learning outdated information especially when a set of standards is older. To address this, a new Edge of Scienceprogram is being initiated. The program strives to provide regular updates on advancements in science in an easily digestible format, like brief information videos with supplemental links to more information. The goal, is for teachers to have access to new material for efficient integration into their classrooms. William & Mary is partnering on this program and I will be leading a set of undergraduate students who create the first Edge of Scienceprojects to help launch this initiative. My past experiences working with educators and students of all ages throughout this iGEM experience will help me to provide guidance to students creating educational materials for the first time. 

            The combination of in-person programs and larger scale Standards of Learning changes completed by William & Mary this year have impacted the engagement and excitement of the public in synthetic biology research. The continuation of these programs will promote the increased interest of multidiscipline individuals coming together to address challenges using synthetic biology solutions. For me personally, I have had the opportunity to develop research and program coordination skills which would have been challenging to cultivate without this experience. I will be continuing my education with a Masters in Public Health and I believe that the lessons I learned throughout this process will be vital as I continue to create effective community intervention programs. After this experience I feel confident in my ability to design lessons and teaching material which are appropriate for students from diverse backgrounds with a wide array of previous knowledge. The organizational and leadership skills I developed while guiding undergrad teaching assistant teams will continue to help me as I mobilize groups of public health officials and volunteers in address public health concerns. Most importantly, the opportunity to work with the Virginia Department of Education has provided me with an understanding of the lengthy process involved with creating state wide policy changes. Understanding the importance of clear communication, careful research and above all patience when working towards change, has better prepared me to continue working in a public health and eventually influence policies. Until I being my graduate program I will be continuing with my work supporting synthetic biology education as a multidisciplinary field in Virginia.