Team Queens_Canada made every effort to ensure education related to synthetic biology, and our project’s focus; chronic kidney disease (CKD), was promoted and accessible to various demographics and communities. Despite the challenges imposed on us, and the entire education community around the world given the ongoing pandemic, we made use of any online platform we could to ensure our ability to deliver high quality educational materials was not compromised.
Education is an important aspect of any science discipline, yet it remains vital to advance the next generation of synthetic biologists. Our team targeted two demographics: both younger kids and teens. In a series of seminar videos, we provided insight into the inner workings of the cell and biohacking. We also included ethical implications of synthetic biology in our seminars to ensure safety was never forgotten. Members of our team also presented at a seminar with the STEM Fellowship organization on effective poster presentations. Through our education we also aim tog row our team but also raise awareness for various causes such as CKD chosen this year.
This year, QGEM once again collaborated with the Science Quest Summer Camp to design a lesson plan for students in grades 4-9. Science Quest is a STEM based program for kids aged 4-15 that strives to spark an interest in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics through in-class workshops, summer camps, and school year sessions. Due to the current pandemic, we could not collaborate the same way we have in previous years, as their summer program was entirely online for 2020. Instead, we opted to create a virtual lesson consisting of an animated video with a printable worksheet for students to complete, along with a DNA model building activity to which they could follow along. Finally, we finished off the lesson with a live Q&A session for the kids, to answer any and all queries about what they learned.
In this lesson, the kids conceptualized cells as the building blocks of all life on Earth and learned to make the distinction between biotic and abiotic organisms. From there, they developed an understanding of the structures and functions of DNA and RNA and how they work together to make the proteins that govern cellular activities.
After learning about the basic units of genetic material, students had the opportunity to apply their knowledge of DNA structure to a model building activity. In the video, one of our outreach leads led the students through the construction of a DNA model out of twizzlers, marshmallows and toothpicks. This activity encouraged students to appreciate components and structure of DNA outlined previously. Students were able to show off their structures in the Q&A session and noted that they thoroughly enjoyed this part of the lesson (especially eating it after)!
Finally, students were taught about the central dogma of molecular biology and the basic tenets of transcription and translation, including their starting and ending materials, along with where they take place in the cell, and the molecular machinery involved. Students understood these processes through the context of a helpful analogy, that allowed them to comprehend the utility of these reactions to a cell.
Students participated in an assessment before and after completing the lesson to measure its overall effectiveness in fulfilling its two purposes, the first being sparking interest in cell biology and STEM as a whole, and the second being educating students on the topics discussed. To measure a student’s interest, the assessments consisted of a series of statements to which they could indicate their agreement with on a Likert scale, for example one of the statements was “I am very interested in cell biology and how cells work”. This was followed by questions assessing their knowledge of lesson topics. Overall average scores for cell biology/STEM interest, as well as content knowledge increased after the virtual lesson.
To further increase the engagement of high schoolers towards synthetic biology, we created and presented a lecture related to genetic engineering: ‘Biohackers Unite’. This lecture covered a variety of topics, including synthetic biology, biochemistry, general protein science, and the ethical implications associated with genetic engineering.
Social Media Campaigns
Dietary restrictions may pose threats to an individual's health should they not adhere to their limits. These restrictions can be especially difficult to accommodate for when the total nutritional content of food items is not reported. For example, patients with CKD are unable to excrete phosphate efficiently leading it to build up in the blood. Patients who consume large amounts of phosphate are at risk of becoming hyperphosphatemic which can be detrimental to their health in a number of ways, yet the phosphate levels are not reported on nutritional labels. To highlight this, we created social media campaigns to educate the public on what phosphate is, its implications in CKD, and the role it plays in our diets as a food additive.
We ran the first social media campaign #PhosphatePhacts from mid-July to early August. It featured educational posts on Instagram and Facebook about what phosphate is, what it does, and what happens if phosphate levels are out of balance. This campaign aimed to raise awareness about the relevance of phosphate in our daily homeostatic and metabolic functions, as well as its involvement in Chronic Kidney Disease. The campaign ended off with posts about CKD specifically to further highlight how it affects individuals and populations at large, in order to emphasize the necessity of the phosphate biosensor this year’s QGEM team is working on.
Our second and third social media campaigns #PhosphateFriday and #MealMondays were posted throughout August and September. For #PhosphateFriday, we measured the amount of phosphate and calcium in various popular fast food items such as a Sausage McGriddle from McDonalds, or a blueberry muffin from Tim Hortons. Every Friday we featured one item on our Instagram page and challenged our audience to guess the amount of phosphate it contains. On #MealMondays the answers were released along with a recipe for a CKD friendly alternative. These campaigns encouraged audiences to realize that fast foods may seem harmless once in a while to most, however for patients with CKD they present an enormous dietary challenge. Since phosphate levels generally are not reported on nutrition labels, it can be very difficult for a CKD patient to gauge what they can and cannot eat.
STEM Fellowship Webinar “Blueprint to and E-Poster”
STEM fellowship is a registered charity that equips students with the skills in scientific communication, and data analytics through experiential learning and mentorship. They run workshops throughout the year to teach students the fundamentals of data science and scholarly writing. This year, QGEM collaborated with their workshops team in order to bring “Blueprint to an E-Poster” – a webinar on scientific presentation and poster creation – to their audience. On September 26th, QGEM’s director and wet lab lead hosted the webinar with a member of the STEM Fellowship team to highlight the qualities of a good scientific e-poster, compare and contrast scientific e-posters for formal presentation with posters for school projects most students are familiar with, and explore examples of good scientific e-posters and the commonalities between them.
We also created an essay contest for high school students, asking “why is synthetic biology important?” The goal of this contest was to encourage young, aspiring students interested in science to research the vast landscape of synthetic biology to learn what makes this field of science so important. By doing so, we hoped the students who participated would further their own knowledge, and consequently invigorate their respective passions towards synthetic biology. We judged all of the essays as a team, and awarded the top three essays with Amazon or Starbucks giftcards, and featured all consenting students who participated in the contest on our social media.