The year 2020, along with a COVID-19 pandemic, brought on many great challenges upon our system of education and its constituents. However, where others may see a challenge, our team saw an opportunity. Vilnius-Lithuania iGEM team is very happy to have made the best of arduous circumstances by offering multiple well-thought-out activities and events for both pre-quarantine and quarantine periods.
We put great effort into including as many age groups as possible into these sub-projects, allowing people of any age to get themselves acquainted with the world of life sciences and especially – synthetic biology. We provided careful consideration into adapting the educational material to each of our target audiences, from colouring books to Augmented Reality scenes - nobody got left out. We are proud to have launched initiatives that we hope will not end with us and will continue to be a source of mutual learning and science communication.
2020 was a very busy year for the Vilnius-Lithuania iGEM team. We are proud to have made great progress in the area of science communication by creating numerous online and in-person synthetic biology events for various age groups and publishing an age-appropriate free educational colouring book for our little ones, which in the end proved to be exceptionally successful in creating open dialogue with our team and the target audience. We also created an large-scale open sourced Augmented Reality project for science enthusiasts and finally - we’ve collaborated with an up-and-coming YouTube star Linas Marcišauskas to help us spread the word of life sciences and iGEM!
Immersive and visually engaging information are one of the key factors to effective science communication. We felt that traditional activities in education lacked depth, continuity and usually ended after iGEM competition. With a desire to develop an innovative educational tool, which would not just spark one-time interest in synthetic biology but become a long-term learning platform, we created an interactive open-air museum called “The 6th SynBio Sense”.
It is a mutual learning space based on state-of-the-art technology Augmented Reality. The main principle of this platform is a QR code and custom-design marker, which can be scanned with a mobile camera and eventually people are able to view 3D models of a DNA molecule, BioBricks and other synbio-related AR scenes. It is an open source tool, which allows people to explore synthetic biology concepts in another format and directly contribute to the life sciences and synthetic biology field, as there is an option to DIY your own AR scene.
As this platform is extremely multi-faceted, it has the power to reach almost the majority of our target audiences. In fact, we tailored information both for people who barely have any knowledge about life sciences and those who are science enthusiasts in the “6th SynBio Sense” website. Children can admire beautiful 3D models and teachers are able to utilize AR scenes as the additional educational resource to teach students.
‘The 6th SynBio Sense’ project’s concept has never been explored more in detail and realised in iGEM and we were ambitious to push the boundaries even further in this competition. Click below to read more about this side project.
As we wanted to engage with as many people as possible, we pinpointed kindergarten and primary school children as one of our target groups. It is important to introduce children to science in early childhood as it helps to develop their reasoning skills, positive attitude towards science and better understanding of the natural world1. Therefore, children are more likely to grasp abstract scientific concepts in their later education.
It is suggested that picture books maintain children’s interest and present science concepts more accurately, while fostering their cognitive skills2. Thus, we decided to create an educational colouring book for children “The (Un)hidden Code of Life” (Fig. 1).
Figure 1. Several pages from the colouring book
With this book our goal was to spark curiosity about the life sciences in kindergarten and primary school children, equip teachers with educational material and generate a two-way dialogue to improve science communication for the children.
Firstly, we did some research to see what is already offered to the public in terms of educational books for children about life sciences. We explored the local bookstores, libraries as well as surfed the web but with our deepest sorrow we have found barely any educational books for children about life sciences specifically. There were only STEM books which covered hardly any topics about life sciences. Hence, it motivated us even more to create a colouring book for the little ones.
The Development of The Book
Why (un)hidden code?
Living nature, particularly, on the molecular scale is often entangled in mystery, since it is invisible to the naked eye. With an aim to uncover the secrets of life sciences, we created a colouring book around the discovery of living creatures’ features, which depend on the genetic code encrypted into their DNA – the blueprint of our life. Eventually, going through all pages of the book the code of life is unhidden.
It was a conundrum to our team how to introduce children to synthetic biology in a way that is concise and easy to understand. We came to an agreement that in the first place our book should provide a solid foundation for grasping life sciences concepts, which will allow better understanding of synbio ideas later.
Our content structure is based on the investigation of the cell - fundamental unit of life and the exploration of biodiversity which ultimately leads to the core ideas of the blueprint of life - DNA and the genetic code. In doing so, children are familiarized with the basics of the natural world and vocabulary.
In addition, we were concerned that if we start from the first pages to explain what synthetic biology is, for example, illustrate bacteria producing pigments for textile, children might think that these bacteria are naturally found in nature.
In order to avoid any misinformation, our book content is more oriented around the basics of the life sciences so children could later confidently explore synbio related topics. We decided that the best way to engage children in discovering and posing questions about synbio is through presenting the applications of synthetic biology.
Moreover, we highly focused on the language to explain difficult scientific concepts in simple words without losing key ideas. Additionally, every single illustration was made in great consideration of details and accuracy by our graphic designer. We complemented illustrations with tasks to better internalize material and at the end of the book answers can be found for self-check. Finally, we incorporated The 6th SynBio Sense QR codes and markers about DNA and BioBricks into the colouring book.
Accessibility & Inclusivity
Considering inclusivity and avoiding any sensitive topics, we created Gemy as an abstract and non-binary character so every child could comfortably identify as Gemy – an explorer of the life code and would not feel left out (Fig. 2). This character‘s role is to become a teacher and a companion for children and lead them through the wonders of the natural world.
Figure 2. Main character of the book Gemy is gender neutral
Our main focus was to produce an educational colouring book in Lithuanian language but we also translated it into English so it can be used internationally. Apart from that, we asked E-bookstore “Real Book” to help us distribute the book and partnered with the natural sciences educational institution for students “The Seventh Fort of Kaunas”, which were extremely interested in using them in the future and printed several hundred copies. We were gifted some paper versions of the book, thus, we managed to donate them to the local Queen Morta school.
Generating the Dialogue
However, publishing the book just online is not enough. Educational resources almost serve no value if they are not actively used. We wanted to implement this book into schools to provide teachers educational material and effectively engage with preschoolers and students through hands-on activity. Therefore, we joined the international eTwinning program, which promotes collaborations between educational institutions.
We managed to integrate “The (Un)hidden Code of Life” book into “The Young Scientists“ project, which took place in 6 countries: Lithuania, Poland, Estonia, Croatia, The Czech Republic and Canada (Fig. 3-4). During this project, teachers used our book and recorded experiments about onion and yeast cells as the framework for the biology lessons to teach preschoolers from Poland to 5th grade students from Estonia.
Figure 3. Map of the countries where “The (Un)hidden Code of Life” book was implemented through the eTwinning program
When the quarantine regulations were alleviated, we visited primary school and guided several lessons to 4th graders about the basic concepts of life sciences. At first, children were introduced to different types of cells and several kingdoms of life by colouring the first pages of the book. Next, they had an opportunity to see onion and yeast cells through a microscope in real life. To engage with students even more, children played a Kahoot game to recap information.
Figure 4. Preschoolers in Runowo, Poland. 3rd graders from Ivan Cankar Elementary School in Zagreb, Croatia. 4th graders from Lithuania. 5th graders from Tartu Mart Reinik School, Estonia
Furthermore, we put an emphasis on bacterial cell functions, which led to the final task of the book - find a solution to the synthetic biology related problem, to be exact, we wanted to see how children would solve our project’s problem. They had to draw a genetically modified organism, which would treat infected fish. To our surprise, students were able to grasp this problem and some of them even drew organisms, which would activate the immunity of the fish.
After the “The Young Scientists” activity a self-reflection survey was conducted to see how useful our educational colouring book was during the lessons (Fig. 5-7).
Figure 5. A percentage of participants who enjoyed a particular part of the lessons (89 responses)
Figure 6. A chart illustrates a percentage of participants who can explain photosynthesis to their friends (89 responses)
Figure 7. A chart depicts a percentage of children who enjoyed “The Young Scientists” lessons (89 responses)
I am satisfied that our teachers and pupils had a wonderful opportunity to engage with students from Vilnius-Lithuania iGEM team. Maybe in the future some of the pupils will want to become scientists. It was amazing to see students' enthusiasm to learn more about the life sciences. I hope we’ll have more projects like this in the future.
Kauno Jono Pauliaus II gimnazija
Despite my preschoolers' age they were eager to learn more about plants, they were able to differentiate good and bad bacteria and especially enjoyed colouring the book and doing laboratory experiments. Nonetheless, it was hard to do each task because of their age.
All in all, receiving positive feedback from the teachers and seeing children full of curiosity was extremely heartwarming and rewarding. Teachers were delighted to have an additional educational resource in another format, as it managed
to maintain children’s attention, convey visually rather difficult scientific concepts and complemented laboratory experiments with microscopes.
Nevertheless, some tasks were too complicated for children to complete. For future improvement, the tasks should be probably more tailored to the specific age group and maybe focus more on the microorganism and synthetic biology topics as children paid more attention to various kingdoms of life.
Due to the pandemic, the transition period from normal lifestyle to quarantine brought numerous challenges to every industry, especially education. Pupils and teachers had to quickly adapt to online learning, with little prior preparations. With the purpose of helping teachers spark interest in science and increase pupils` motivation to study during these difficult times, we decided to develop an educational game - Bioblox.
Gamifying the studying process
The immersiveness of video games helps to increase factual learning and introspection in children3. In a survey of 1,254 middle school children in the US more than half agreed that they liked to learn new things from video games; almost one child in five was strongly motivated to play in order to learn4. This research shows that our game development for educational purposes approach could make the learning process more effective and appealing even after the pandemic.
BioBlox, in particular, introduces players to the world of synthetic biology in a fun and captivating way. It was designed with an idea to engage a diverse audience without a scientific background, especially the younger generation. Every level is based on a classic minigame with a slight educational twist. For example, a race level can be finished only if the right car - represents a protein in an electrophoresis gel - is chosen; or a puzzle level, where a genetic circuit sequence has to be decoded to get through to the next level.
Many references to the history of genetics can be found scattered throughout the whole game. Players can literally swim around a bacterial cell to find hidden nucleotides and exit through an Ion channel or shoot giant plasmids with restriction enzymes! After finding their way out of a maze ruled by a crazy scientist and completing all other levels, the audience can test their knowledge in a quiz-like level. The questions are mainly focused on synthetic biology, like the length of DNA or recombinant protein production. The level is decorated with references to different stages of iGEM and finished off with the Giant Jamboree.
The game was made on the Roblox platform thus, it is accessible to anyone interested and can be easily implemented into educational activities independent of location. Roblox attracts an average of 150 million players every month, mainly between the ages of 9 to 155. User-created games predominate the platform developed using LUA programming language. Hence, Roblox is highly educational not only because of learning-oriented games, but also it motivates younger generations to learn programming, game development and even gain early business knowledge.
Spreading the news
We encouraged people to play BioBlox by organising a week-long gaming tournament, where top 5 players could acquire prizes for their score. Also, a game night took place at a STEAM camp for school children from sixth to ninth grade. It even reached kids from across the globe in Tainan by collaborating with the TAIPEI iGEM high school team. Finally, via a live stream during iGEM Global Meetup, we discussed how to develop a game on Roblox for educational purposes, the struggles we faced during the development process and explained hidden references to science in detail.
Since its release, BioBlox has grossed over 400 players and helped people of all ages to see science from a different perspective.
Every single one of us are using social media on a daily basis. We use it to keep in touch with our friends, to find out about various events happening around the world and to see what our beloved celebrity is doing today. As of 2019, the average daily social media usage worldwide is about 2 hours and 24 minutes. However it is not a limit, the country with the most time spent on social media is the Philippines with 3 hours and 53 minute on social media each day6.
Social media influencers have strong social and cultural impact over a broad audience. They create popular YouTube videos, post breathtaking pictures and without doubt all of them spread a message. This led us to ask a question: Why couldn't this message be about science? Science would benefit a lot if celebrities, who have the power to influence what people eat and how they dress, would talk more about scientists and their research. Also, by raising awareness for scientific causes social media influencers could potentially broaden their audience even more. Scientists should engage with social media influencers. By providing facts and findings they could spread scientific messages to a wide audience 7.
Another issue that caught our attention was women in science. According to UIS data, less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women. A survey made in 2017 showed that young girls become interested in STEM subjects around the age of 11, however they lose interest around the age of 15. It is thought to be because of social expectations, gender stereotypes, roles and lack of role models that encourage girls to stay interested in STEM field8. This is why it is very important to have a lot of science representation online. By having more science content from influencers, it would reach more girls and show that science must be cool and interesting, if their liked celebrity talks about it.
In order to reach a larger audience, so that more people could hear about science and iGEM competition, we decided to invite a social media influencer and YouTuber Linas Marcišauskas(@linasdirbadarbus). He is known in Lithuania for regularly trying on different professions, documenting his experiences, and posting about it on social media platforms. Linas has over 13 000 followers on Instagram, his YouTube videos have more than 147 000 views and his most popular video has 60 000 views!
We were wondering how many people from his audience would get interested in synthetic biology and we decided to reach out to him. When we contacted Linas and introduced him to iGEM, he was very interested and happily accepted our invitation to spend a week in a lab with us. Both our team and him benefited from this visit. We reached more people, promoted iGEM and our team, while he got interesting footage and an experience that can be turned into another popular video on YouTube.
For the entire week he was doing what we were doing everyday. We started the whole experience with a quick lecture about safety and rules in a lab, then followed by main principles of genetic engineering and finally methods that we use in our lab. Then we started working. We let him do everything, but we were guiding him and telling him what to do in every step of his way. Day one he learned how to purify a plasmid, do restriction, how to run an agarose gel, ligate fragments and other basics of transformation. Next day followed cPCR, more agarose gels and transformations. For the further days he continued with the experiments, we also showed him how to purify proteins, how to set up and do a membrane test.
Linas was documenting the whole experience on Instagram stories and longer clips were shot for a YouTube video on Vilnius-Lithuania iGEM 2020 team, our project and Linas’ experience in a lab. One of the easiest ways to measure influence on social media can be easily predicted by URL clicks9. According to that, every Instagram story was watched by 2000 - 3000 people. We noticed that Linas audience consists of 75% of young adult women, which according to previously discussed research is a group that is least engaged in STEM. Maybe one of his followers enjoyed his experience in a lab and got interested in science!
With his help we reached more people who are interested in different areas of work. On Linas’ posts from the lab we saw comments that people enjoy science content and they had questions. All of them were addressed on his Instagram stories and we gladly gave answers. We were really happy that people engaged and participated in Linas experience through social media. This one week had an impact on our social media platforms. After his visit we had a 25% gain in followers on Instagram! Our team is thankful for Linas and we are very happy that information about science, what researchers do in labs everyday and what is a process of making a new product or making a new finding, reached more people. Hopefully we influenced some young people to consider a career in life sciences or at least check out what scientists are doing.
Lesson about viruses on National Television
In response to the global COVID-19 situation, Lithuanian national television “LRT” organised live educational lessons for middle and high school students. We had an opportunity to educate thousands of students about viruses and the importance of preventative measures in the face of the pandemic.
The presentation began with an explanation of the structural components of viruses. Later on, the mechanism of infection was described and how soap can help mitigate the risk. It was shown why it is so hard to create effective antiviral drugs and make them accessible quickly. The session was filled with vivid imagery and comprehensive comparisons tailored to a younger audience, for example, that a cell is like a car that gets driven out of control by a virus driver. Later a few questions from callers were answered. It was essential to explain to the young why they cannot go outside without masks and why they are suddenly not allowed to go to school.
In addition to the main lesson, a few more short pre-filmed episodes were shown on the TV in the segment called “Did you know that..”. Atomic gardens, a dye extracted from bacteria and music's impact on memory were presented. Animated infographics made the content more engaging and fun.
This year our team aimed to create a series of online lectures that would be available to a wide audience of listeners. We based the content of our lectures on the high school exam programme so that high school seniors could prepare better for their biology exam. Our series were comprised of five lectures in our native language - lithuanian. In the first lecture we presented the concepts of genetic material and its importance, highlighted the differences between DNA and RNA as well as talked about how plasmid construction is done. Next, we introduced pupils to genome editing using CRISPR and talked about how genome editing was being done before CRISPR technology emerged. In another lecture we discussed different types of human genetic diseases and how they can be treated with CRISPR. We even touched genetically modified organisms' topic and explained how they are made and that they are not as scary as it may seem. Finally, we explained the concepts of synthetic biology and iGEM competition to the listeners.
An opportunity occured when the “Students for pupils, pupils for students” (SMMS) initiative decided to hold online seminars during quarantine. SMMS is Vilnius University Student’s Representation (VU SA) program supported by the First Lady of the Republic of Lithuania Diana Nausėdienė that started in 2009 and has grown into an initiative by VU SA, Lithuanian Council of Youth Organizations (LiJOT), Lithuanian Student’s Union (LSU) and the Lithuanian School Student’s union (LSS). This initiative was created to help students in grades 1 to 12 to better absorb the knowledge that is provided through distance learning. Initiative volunteers (mentors) help students by explaining the theoretical material needed for further studying, counsel pupils about distance learning and offer career guidance.
This year our team volunteered to help school students to understand the concepts of biology. We presented in an online seminar called “(Un)hidden Code of Life” during which we elaborated on the topics of our online lectures and held a Q&A session. This activity taught us some intricacies of teaching, how to pick which information is the most relevant to the topic and also how to give a presentation in a playful and clear way.
Workshops in life sciences conference COINS
For the third time, Vilnius-Lithuania iGEM team has taken part in an international conference of life sciences The COINS 2020. In this conference, our team not only presented oral and poster presentations about the 2019 Vilnius-Lithuania iGEM team project 'Colight' and attended a company fair, but also did a workshop for high school students.
We introduced synthetic biology and genetic engineering principles to more than 100 high school students during an organized workshop. In the first part of the workshop, they performed restriction analysis by digesting a plasmid with two different restriction enzymes and learned how to analyze its results via agarose gel. Also, during this activity, we talked a lot about the applications of synthetic biology as well as iGEM competition.
After all the hard work, students played the battle of ships in a laboratory style: acid “ships” were poured into microplates, and all the remaining wells were filled with an alkaline solution. In this way, students had to “drown” their opponents' ships while dropping a universal indicator into the wells. Students learned the differences between acidic and alkaline solutions during this activity in an immersive and playful way.
Besides that, our team instructors had an opportunity to represent last year’s project 'Colight' and expand more on synthetic biology and iGEM competition during oral and poster presentations.
Also, the company fair became an essential activity for us. The newly formed team had a great opportunity to reach out to our regular sponsors along with networking with new contacts and discussing our team ideas with a lot of scientists and other professionals in the field of life sciences.
Participating in children’s STEAM summer camp
STEAM is an educational way for students to show how science and art together can create a meaningful mutual learning space. STEAM education is assessed worldwide and the benefits are noticeable10. Our team contribution to the STEAM education program would help to diversify the content of studies and show a real example of how the STEAM idea is adaptable in real-life problems.
Summer STEAM camp for teachers and talented kids “Science and creativity” took place in Tauragė, Lithuania. This camp gives a possibility to improve skills and STEAM integration into school education. Moreover, it is intended to disclose that science is related to creativity, interdisciplinarity, and innovation.
Vilnius-Lithuania iGEM 2020 team had a great chance to show that synthetic biology is all about what this camp seeks. Firstly, during this activity, we taught a lecture about synthetic biology and biotechnology. During the presentation, we wanted to show not only the main principles of life sciences but also, to talk more about multidisciplinarity in science.
With the purpose of achieving this aim, we were talking a lot about iGEM competition and how these projects could solve global problems. We explained that scientists should know how to combine math, biochemistry, technology skills in practical use. The kids learned the basics of life sciences and were introduced to synthetic biology. They were so interested in how it can improve our lives.
After a short lesson, we gave them a creative task: the pupils and teachers needed to create the plasmids with genes of their choice. The goal of this task was to show how cloning strategies work and how different kinds of genes are used for different purposes. Children were interested in how insulin or green fluorescent protein genes work. After an interactive discussion about exact genes' function, we showed the principle of the genetic circuit construction in a very simple way without any laboratory equipment.
After a short break, kids asked us if we can tell more about previous Vilnius-Lithuania iGEM teams projects. After a long discussion on how one or another Vilnius-Lithuania iGEM team project could be implemented in a real-world, we gave kids to play the lab-style battleship. This game helped to get in touch with the lab work and explain it. It’s better to see it once than to hear it 1000 times.
During this camp, we not only had an opportunity to show kids the basics of life sciences but also we gained a lot of experience of talking responsibly about gene engineering and GMOs. In this way, we were able to learn how to tell our ideas for a wider society that looks at biotechnology with skepticism.
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