2. Educational Outreach

The core contact point between science and the broad public is communication. The welfare of nascent scientific fields highly depends on the communication- and discussion-capacity of scientists as well as on the openness, knowledge and acceptance of society. Therefore, in addition to our practical lab work and theoretical philosophical analysis, we also wanted to introduce people of different ages to the novel field of synthetic biology. Since we believe that informing the public spreads understanding, promotes acceptance and avoids pre-judgement, we used most of our free time to communicate our work as ‘synthetic biologists’ particularly to children, high school students and undergraduates. Because we think disregarding the importance of appropriate ways of communication is definitely a counterproductive attitude, we tried to didactically match the content of our presentations to the age and background of the people we met. We also included our own thoughts about the metaphorical language of synthetic biology (see Philosophical analysis) to give unbiased and clear information of synthetic biology, its products, possibilities and risks. Our educational presentation of synthetic biology has four sections:

2.1 Children - DNA-Extraction

2.2 High school students

2.2.1 Presentations for high school students

2.2.2 Practical training in our lab

2.2.3 Synthetic biology and society

2.3 Undergraduates – Compact seminar: ‘Theories of the Living’

2.4 Open house presentation

2.1 Children - DNA-Extraction

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We have ‘spread the word’ of synthetic biology among kids at every opportunity. However, because it is sometimes difficult to express the main ideas of a specific new field such as synthetic biology to small children, we decided to not only to talk about it, but to make them experience it! We wanted to give the children a first impression in the tiny, but amazing world of cell biology by learning through their own action. Using a microscope connected to a computer, we showed the children some cells and explained them the general concept of a cell, the smallest unit of life. After looking at the cells through the microscope the children learned the 'first steps' of genetics. Using a plastic model as a prop, we explained in easy terms the way DNA is responsible for the correct functioning and welfare of the cell. To make this rather abstract idea graspable for the kids, we showed how to extract DNA from common vegetables. In this way it was possible for them to actually see the mysterious DNA, which constantly works within their own bodies.

On three different occasions we were able to work with quite inquisitive groups of children and introduced them to the field of synthetic biology:

I. At the ‘Wissens-Tage Baden-Württemberg’ (Knowledge-days of Baden-Württemberg) in the city of Neuenburg, Germany. (3th -4th March 2012)

II. At the ‚Sommerfest’ of the city of Freiburg, Germany. (22th September 2012)

III. At the ‘Science Days’ in the ‘Europa-Park’, Rust, Germany. (11th-13th October 2012)

It was really nice to witness the exaltation in the children's faces when using the microscope and to see all those smiles during DNA-extraction. The positive feedback we got is a clear sign of the great time the children and all of us had.

2.2 High school students

2.2.1 Presentations for high school students

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For us iGEM is indeed a great opportunity for working and learning in a lab, but also a good chance to promote and discuss synthetic biology. In this vein, we decided to teach students the basic ideas of synthetic biology and our project in order to inspire them and enhance their motivation for the study of life sciences. Two of our team members visited a biotechnological high school in Freiburg (Merian-Schule) and the Freiburg-Seminar, a central organization of the city to promote talented students. During our visit we talk about:

  • Synthetic biology in general
  • iGEM and our project
  • Possibilities of synthetic biology
  • Risks, concerns and social implications

The students and teachers were amazed by the bright prospects of synthetic biology, but also concerned about the risks of it. Although our presentation was not able to reply to all questions and concerns, we still evoked lively interest in synthetic biology and promoted further thoughts. We would like to thank the students and teachers for the active listening and animated participation in the discussions!

2.2.2 Practical training in our lab

In addition to our presentation in the Merian-school and the Freiburg-Seminar, we invited high school students to have a work experience in our lab. We wanted to give them the opportunity get to know how our everydays work in synthetic biology. The students had the possibility to work with us full time a whole week and learn important methods such as PCR, gel electrophoresis and cell transformation. It was an excellent experience for us to teach these fresh minds the methods of molecular life sciences and it was as a matter of fact even helpful for our own project.


2.2.3 Synthetic biology and society

Around 30 highschool students from an iniciative called Netwerk Bioethik came to visit us the 12th October to learn the basics of synthetic biology and the main aspects of our project. They were preparing themselves for the international conference Synthetic Biology and Society, which was organised by the Institute of Ethics and the History of Medicine of the University of Freiburg and took place the 13th of October. We really enjoyed to speak with these students, because of their huge interest in this topic and sharp questioning!

2.3 Undergraduates – Compact Seminar: ‘Theories of the Living’


In an interdisciplinary compact course (7th-8th July 2012) of the Albert-Ludwigs-University of Freiburg called ‘Theories of the Living’ (ger. ‘Theorien des Lebendigen’) we invited students from different disciplines to work on the writings of classical philosophers (Immanuel Kant, Friederich W. J. von Schelling and Hans Jonas) regarding their notion of teleology and natural purposes. With this theoretical framework, we inquired the fact that the products of synthetic biology seems to have both, an intrinsic (natural) purposiveness – because they are a good in itself – and a relative (artificial) purposiveness – because they are being used as means to an end. Equally, we examined the relationship of an ‘intrinsic value’ and an ‘instrumental value’ in the products of synthetic biology. It was an extremely interesting and fruitful work, because the novel entities of the synthetic biology present new philosophical challenges, which are really difficult to deal with. The cooperation between philosophy and biology students in this compact course enabled a unique deepening in the heart of these relevant problems.

On this weekend we also had a special lecture called ‘Semantic Fallacies in the Synthetic Biology’ (ger. ‘Semantische Fehlschlüße in der Synthetischen Biologie’), where, besides a philosophical introduction in the synthetic biology, a number of common speech bias regarding the products of this new field were presented. On the whole, the compact course was an intensive working weekend, which transformed a usual university seminar into a really special interdisciplinary event.

Books we worked with:

Kant I (2009 [1790]): Kritik der Urteilskraft. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt a.M. (eng. Critique of Judgement)
Jonas H (1997): Das Prinzip Leben. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt a.M. (eng. The Phenomenon of Life. Towards a Philosophical Biology)
Schelling FWJ (1797): Ideen zu einer Philosophie der Natur als Einleitung in das Studium dieser Wissenschaft. (eng. Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature: as Introduction to the Study of this Science)

2.4 Open house presentation

On the 6th of July we opened the doors of our lab to visitors! Firstly, we introduced our visitors in the field of synthetic biology and presented our iGEM-project. We explained them our aims, showed the facilities and also partial results. Afterwards, we even had some time to discuss about the social implications, possibilities and risks of synthetic biology. In addition, they were invited to stay in the lab and to observe our work. All of the visitors were really open to the field of synthetic biology and showed interest regarding our work.

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