High school students in an iGEM environment

A Social Experiment

This year, for the first time, we carried out a bit of a social experiment: we invited a substantial number of local high school students to join the team. In the end, the team is composed of five high school students, in grades ranging from 10 to 12, and four undergraduates, one from each academic year and none with previous iGEM experience. The idea is two-fold: firstly, to extend the reach of the iGEM experience to a different audience of students, effectively expanding the outreach of synthetic biology; and secondly, to see if the different background and perspectives of younger students would have an impact on the nature of the science done.

Although we expected that the HS students would have formal coursework background, there were several unanticipated obstacles. One was school schedules. High school classes run until nearly the end of June, limiting the participation of the HS students during the initial phase of the project. Another was logistics and transportation. Generally the HS students neither lived on campus nor drove a vehicle, complicating their availability especially for after-hours lab sessions. However there were also unanticipated benefits. The younger students brought a level of enthusiasm which readily overcame any differences in background. Moreover, the undergraduates and HS students bonded during lab hours and discussions of topics ranging from religion (adherents of most of the world’s major groups were present) to card games and beyond.

As a result of our social experiment, we generated an iGEM handbook for high school students joining iGEM teams. This handbook is designed to help high school students understand what is being performed in basic laboratory techniques and provide a solid background information. It will also help them adapt to work in a synthetic biology lab as smoothly as possible. This handbook was written as peer-to-peer information, written by high school students for high school students.

Overall, the effort was demanding but positive, and something we will recommend all iGEM teams consider in future years.


Community involvement

Members of the iGEM team presented to WISEST Teacher Appreciation Day, Aug 14, 2012, discussing the iGEM program and our project. WISEST is a U of A training program aimed at encouraging the attraction, retention and advancement for women of all ages in science, engineering and technology.

We also presented at the Alberta Genetically Engineered Machines (aGEM) competition on Sep 15-16, 2012. Currently in its fourth year, aGEM is a gathering of western Canadian iGEM teams, where they have a chance to present and receive feedback from a star-studded panel of judges. Although patterned after iGEM, aGEM attracts its own audience, including more than 100 largely local luminaries who came to hear about advancements in synthetic biology at the hands of Canadian students. Although this year, the team from Calgary won aGEM (boo! hiss! the University of Calgary is a traditional rival to the University of Alberta), we received encouragement and a slate of useful suggestions for the remainder of our project.

High school students who took part in our team will be an important component of our outreach. Their experience, paired with the fact that they are still active in the local high school community will allow them to be powerful proponents of high school iGEM, and will hopefully allow them to have a part in setting up future high school iGEM teams in Edmonton.


Interaction between iGEM community

We would first like to thank Uppsala 2011 iGEM team, for introducing amilGFP to the iGEM universe. Although we did not need to contact them directly, the data and sequences they contributed to the parts registry formed the core of the colors we used this summer.

We have supplied strains and plasmids to a number of other iGEM teams. Both the University of British Columbia and University of Calgary iGEM teams relied on E. coli knockout strains we had access to and provided to them. Additionally, the CINVESTAV-IPN-UNAM_MX iGEM team used a number of BioBricks first made by the 2007 and 2008 University of Alberta iGEM teams, which we provided to them along with technical suggestions. (Parenthetically, we note that the border issues faced by some teams pales in comparison to those faced by Canadians.)


People who made this project possible

Project main members:

  • Peter West: Gradient plates, wiki writer, presentation of materials, handbook writer
  • Abdullah Farooq: PCR, plasmid manipulation, presentation of materials, handbook writer
  • Torrin Lemire: Transformations, plating, gradient plate master, handbook writer/editor
  • Easwar Chidambaravasi: PCR expert, plasmid manipulation, plasmid cloning
  • Rick (Nien-Tsu) Tseng: PCR expert, plasmid manipulation and cloning, wiki writer
  • Tom Patrick: Plasmid manipulation, plasmid loss expert, plasmid cloning
  • Spencer Short: Plasmid manipulation, sponsor liaison
  • Aidan Burke: Gradient plates, gel electrophoresis expert, handbook writer
  • Sarah Haeubl: LB agar/broth technician, handbook writer


  • Doug Ridgway & Mike Ellison: Concept, instruction, oversight, and fundraising
  • Ryan Mercer: Instruction, technical assistance

Additional thanks to:

  • Michael Feist: web programming
  • Justin Fedor: assistance in fluorescence measurements
  • Dept Biochemistry: providing various resources for our project
  • Uppsala 2011: for introducing amilCP to the iGEM universe