Creating a Two-Way Dialogue

When pursuing educational outreach materials and activities, we wanted to establish a two-way dialogue between our team and our audiences. After organizing an event, for example, we strived to improve our work by receiving feedback from students and other teams, and conducted interviews with organizations specializing in the creation of synthetic biology education material. To that end, our major contributions to education are:

  • Designing and implementing a synthetic biology undergraduate course in our university (which can be found here)
  • Developing mentorship relationships with iGEM teams to provide guidance in terms of human practices work, and overall team structure
  • Creating a branding style guide to effectively convey scientific information and promote scientific communication for general audiences


Training UCalgary's Next SynBio Researchers

When training our new members for the iGEM season, the returning members designed and executed MDSC 507: Introduction to Synthetic Biology, a semester-long synthetic biology course for both wet and dry lab members. The goal of this course was to provide enough introductory knowledge and expertise in wet and dry lab techniques so that team members would be proficient when beginning full-time work in the spring and summer semesters.

The course consisted of lectures, group activities, assignments, as well as hands-on wet lab activities to learn molecular biology techniques. The material included in the course was chosen to include biological concepts required to develop an iGEM project (such as an understanding of the central dogma, cloning, molecular biology techniques etc.). We realized the need to provide the new members with enough information for them to eventually become comfortable enough to independently pursue different aspects of the project through the summer. As this was the second iteration of the course, a number of improvements were introduced based on feedback from its previous execution. For example, there was a greater emphasis on team building, literature review, and stakeholder engagement. Additionally, members on the team that had participated in the course in 2019 recognized that there should be more course material to develop critical thinking skills, and the ability to troubleshoot issues along the way. Thus a number of assignments were integrated into this year's course that tested students' ability to approach potential problems that would be common during an iGEM season to prepare them for the season ahead.

Like everyone, we hadn't expected the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic when designing our course, although the transition to virtual learning was nonetheless conducted smoothly as we began making preparations for the possibility the week prior to the lockdown. The necessity of a quick and smooth transition during this time underscored the need to update the course with virtual labs and activities as a precaution for future unexpected events.

To aid in developing a two-way communication between the new iGEM members taking the course, and the returning members that were teaching the course, we implemented a mentorship aspect to the course. Essentially, each student in the class was matched with a returning iGEM member to voice any concerns, and approach for extra help as needed. This system proved to be especially useful in allowing us to continue improving the course throughout the semester, rather than only learning of potential ways to improve at the end of the course. For example, early on, we learned that there was a communication barrier in terms of the jargon of synthetic biology that wasn't familiar to the first year students enrolled in the course. Upon learning this, we made sure to approach subsequent lectures being mindful of the language used to teach scientific concepts.

A package of all of the course materials can be accessed here.

Figure 1. New wet lab members from 2020 iGEM Calgary participating in interactive wet-lab activities during the MDSC 507 course.


When designing the course, we were interested in its potential for implementation in other post-secondary institutions. For this reason, we sent our educational materials to the UANL and USP-Brazil teams to provide feedback on the course content.

The members of these teams ultimately found the educational material to be “very useful, visually nice and clear.” However, they recommended the inclusion of more specific teaching material on protein modelling, and elaboration upon the journey from a wet lab circuit to a dry lab modelling project. On that note, the teams were also interested to learn more on how wet lab and dry lab could collaborate in an iterative design cycle during the iGEM season. In particular, the USP-Brazil team found our educational material to be useful, and have plans to use it as material to teach their 2021 team. These collaborations ultimately proved fruitful, providing us with valuable feedback that we will be sure to implement in future iterations of our course.

Future Directions

Although we implemented a significant number of changes to our course material based on feedback from its previous iteration, there is always room for improvement. In the future, we hope to develop our course material in a video format that can be accessed internationally, without the need for someone to teach the course.


Conducting Thoughtful Human Practices

One of our education aims this year was to share our iGEM experiences with others. Whether this be in the human practices department, talking more about the basics of genetic engineering, or going through a quick lesson on wiki development, we aimed to be mindful and help out other teams in the ways they wanted. So, we worked on developing lecture content other than our MDSC507 plans that would be more iGEM specific, and bring that experience to the forefront. We also held a series of interviews with different iGEM affiliates such as the iGEM teams Renert High School, FCB-UANL, BITS GOA, and CSBERG, the Canadian Synthetic Biology Education Research Group, to further understand the struggle that many iGEM teams deal with. While we weren’t able to develop content this year that addressed those struggles, we’re aiming to further modify our mentorship activities and improve upon our MDSC507 course in the coming years to make them all-encompassing!

We worked with Renert High School, a new iGEM team who just got started this year! iGEM can be an overwhelming world to get into without prior experience. So over the summer months, we held a few in-person workshops at Renert High School for their iGEM team. There, we discussed some of the basics of an iGEM competition, such as conducting human practices, obtaining wet lab results, doing dry lab work, such as developing software, hardware, and models, and finally, how iGEM work is presented at the end of the year - through the wiki, poster, and presentation. We also held a wet lab lecture so students could try their own hand at doing wet lab work. We also held interviews with Renert students, so we could understand what made them motivated to be part of an iGEM team and their goals.

Throughout this year, we worked closely with iGEM FCB-UANL to help them with their human practices journey during their project. To begin, we delivered a lecture on how iGEM Calgary conducts its human practices, so as to provide some direction on what’s been working for us. Later on, we were able to get into some of the specifics regarding conducting HP, such as the best ways to get in contact with stakeholders, the different people that might be helpful for different parts of the project, and the ways the HP had affected the course of our project and how it could affect theirs too. Through the course of multiple meetings, we were able to see the progress FCB-UANL had made on their project and how HP had been directing their course of action, and they were able to see the progress we had made on our project. We also contacted FCB-UANL to conduct an interview regarding the difficulties they had faced as an iGEM team, what resources they would like to see in the future, and the ways they had overcome those difficulties. We plan on using the information they gave us to further improve our educational content in the future.

Similar to FCB-UANL, we also mentored iGEM USP-BR in regards to human practices, our views on HP, and how it affected the course of our project in the format of a lecture. We also shared our MDSC507 slides with the USP-BR team, so that they could give us feedback and use them for their 2021 team next year. You can check out their 2019 iGEM project here.

After being in contact with so many of these lovely teams, we were inspired to further improve our educational outreach. To begin, we held an interview with CSBERG, the Canadian Synthetic Biology Education Research Group, to understand what Canadian teams have struggled with in both the present and the past. Using this information, we plan on expanding our mentorship programs for the upcoming iGEM year to invite more schools around the area to learn about synthetic biology and iGEM. We also plan on using the feedback we received this year to improve upon our MDSC507 course and make those materials more accessible to all teams who would like to use them for reference and to educate their team members. In our MDSC507 Synthetic Biology course, we would also like to include a larger section for drylab work, as that is something that was lacking in the current package.


Promoting Science Communication

We wanted the details of our project to be understandable and accessible to everyone, regardless of their background. For this reason, our branding team developed all our deliverables with the goal of effective science communication in mind. After establishing our three audience groups as (1) the general public, (2) the iGEM community, and (3) our project stakeholders, we carefully assessed what each audience would want and need to know. From engaging graphics, such as the ones below, to the judicious language choice we used when discussing our project, every detail of our deliverables was meticulously planned to make them accessible and engaging to a wider audience. Our wiki, for example, caters to all audiences through its range of content, from the simple overviews to the thorough explanations, both of which are supported by eye-catching and intuitive visuals.

Learn more about how we made our project accessible to a wider audience on our branding page

Figure 2. This graphic was used as a visual motif throughout our video presentation and wiki to help audiences understand how all the parts of our project meld together.

Figure 3. This graphic was used to illustrate how our Gibson Assembly process works. Large gene cassettes with multiple transcriptional units are assembled in a "destination vector" containing an antibiotic selection marker. Gibson 1 and Gibson 2 refer to unique homology sequences required for Gibson Assembly.