A significant part of our project was dedicated to public engagement. We aimed to speak to people in the Santa Cruz community about synthetic biology and what a project like Komaplastics can offer them. Synthetic biology is the future of science, and we hope that by spreading information about iGEM and the opportunities of re-engineered organisms, we will inspire future scientists to pursue this field of research.
UCSC iGEM is motivated to educate others on plastic waste and its harm to us and future generations. Our team is making a plastic that will be used in agriculture and we want to gauge how the average person feels about this. Specifically, we sought thoughts and concerns on our biodegradable plastic mulch being used for growing their fruits and vegetables.
Our team strives to spread knowledge of our work and receive feedback, especially feedback concerning the ethics of our project. UCSC offers a bioethics course through the Bioengineering and Bioinformatics department that focuses on ethical questions that arise from research in genetics, medicine, and other biological industries. One topic of success in the class is the ethics of GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) production. In Synthetic Biology, we understand the importance of GMOs and the research that is being done to re-engineer organisms to make them do something they naturally do not do. Nevertheless, GMOs are not entirely welcomed in the public sphere due to negative stigma behind them.
To ensure that our project was truly well rounded and addressed ethical questions, we presented our project to the bioethics course over summer via Zoom. We hoped to learn if our project leaves a positive impression and if there were any concerns we weren’t addressing. After presenting our project to the class, we split into smaller groups using breakout rooms to have more personalized discussions with the students. Most students agreed that GMO production with making a thermoplastic wasn’t a problem unless the organism making the plastic caused a negative affect to the crops. Talking to the bioethics class allowed us to hear the voices of people that would potentially be eating the food grown with our plastic. They helped us gain a better understanding of possible public concern about a bacterial cellulose plastic while praising our innovative method of combating plastic waste.
High School Presentations
The Komaplastics team presented our project and introduced iGEM to local high schools to explain how we are trying to impact the world while encouraging participation in synthetic biology and human practices. We presented to high school students in science programs because this demographic, while interested in the link between the environment and the agriculture industry, may not have in-depth knowledge about synthetic biology or agricultural practices. Thus, this was a good opportunity to inform the public about our project and vision while inspiring future leaders to follow our lead.
Figure 1. The third slide of our high school presentation introducing the fundamentals of synthetic biology. We considered 4 pertinent questions our team might have when learning about a new field of research and addressed them in our presentation.
Figure 2. We used images of plastic bed mulches in actual agricultural fields to help the students visualize the plastics we are designing from bacterial cellulose.
We began by reaching out to biology and environmental science teachers at Soquel High School and the Science and Technology Intensive Program (STIP) at the Kirby Prep School. Before meeting with the schools, the teachers sent out our overview message to provide students a short summary of our project. Our first concern with this sort of outreach was figuring out how to communicate the complex scientific and biochemical background of our project to students just entering the scientific community. So, we made a presentation specifically oriented towards a high school audience assuming they were learning or had learned the fundamentals of environmental science and biology. We opened the floor for questions from students after presenting. However, since these presentations were conducted over zoom due to the pandemic, we anticipated little participation.
To counteract low participation, we planned out 4 questions to act as conversation starters for the class. Asking the class broad questions was useful in soliciting feedback like “What did you find most interesting from learning about our iGEM project?”. Students at Soquel High School found it inspirational that our team of young researchers is addressing a humanitarian issue scientifically. They were curious what would happen as our plastic degraded in soil and how our plastic would affect crop growth. It was helpful for us to respond to these two concerns since these subjects will be forefront if our plastic is implemented in the field.
At the STIP presentation, students were motivated, science-track high schoolers with some experience in labs. We had high participation from this group with questions about the experience of being women in STEM, the feasibility of our project on a larger scale, and the structure of cellulose. From this presentation, it was evident that young people with some scientific knowledge feel more comfortable communicating about our project. This led us to believe a presentation with more illustrative images communicating the science of our project may be helpful for audiences less versed in science.
Across these presentations, the students were inspired to see undergraduate college students coming up with an alternative to current practices. Additionally, concerns mainly focused on the functionality of our product. Students questioned the timeline of degradation of our plastic, a concern that our team has also taken into account when developing the material. The classes responded positively to the question of whether they would be comfortable eating food grown with our plastic since it will degrade without leaving microplastics or other harmful residues. Many students also responded positively when asked about their thoughts on eating a food that was grown on biodegradable plastic that would be tilled into the ground. Many said they were comfortable because the plastic should break down into natural and common substances like glucose. Some students even mentioned they feel more comfortable eating from this kind of biodegradable plastic mulch rather than crops that are grown with damaging bed mulch materials. These conversations encouraged us to work into the dynamics of the biodegradation process and the resulting compounds.
Middle School Presentations
We were fortunate enough to continue presenting at the Kirby School. We talked with middle school students to hopefully spark an interest in Synthetic Biology. Our presentations with the middle school students were similar to that of the high school, with a higher emphasis on cellulose, something they were learning in their life science class at the time.
After the presentation, we presented the students with a Kahoot quiz, utilizing a game-based learning platform. We wanted to gage how well we were presenting our project material to a younger audience and people who do not have deep knowledge of molecular biology. After the Kahoot, we used Google Jamboard to encourage more audience participation. Jamboard is a collaborative digital whiteboard which we used to ask the students questions which they can answer using “sticky notes”. Figures 1-3 show the questions and responses we got.
Figure 3. A Jamboard question asking students if they can think of any issues they could solve with biology.
Figure 4. A Jamboard question trying to gage the audience about their comfort level using our product on the food they eat.
Figure 5. A Jamboard question asking students if they had any questions about our research or biology in general.
In addition to the Jamboard questions, we opened the floor to any comments from the group. We got some great questions such as, “How will you get support for your project?”. We explained how we talked to a lot of professionals in the field who are more than happy to help us once we have some sort of film to test.
One question that really impressed us was, “How will big plastic corporations react about this and how will you be able to implement this knowing they are against it?” Questions like this are why we looked into policies like the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic regulation 7 CFR 205.601. These policies limit projects like ours that are trying to reduce plastic waste. This is why we were motivated to talk with the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) at the USDA about their regulations.