Team:Stanford/Public Engagement

Stanford iGEM Team Wiki

Education and Engagement


The 2019 Stanford iGEM team launched a high school internship program this year to engage local high school students with hands-on bioengineering research. While this was a challenging endeavor, the program provided our internship team with 300+ collective hours of guided project ideation, experimental design, wetlab work, and scientific writing. Our intern survey results overwhelmingly showed that the program both “increased interest in pursuing scientific research” and taught “research and work skills that … will be beneficial beyond iGEM” (see statistics below). Additionally, the program became a central spoke that guided and enriched our other more traditional outreach efforts such as presenting at an intern’s local high school and helping students design their STEM Fair projects. This page provides resources and details on the implementation of our high school program, as well as information on our other outreach components.

Through providing these resources to other iGEM teams, we hope to both encourage and assist other iGEM teams in similarly engaging a larger community with bioengineering.

For the additional outreach components outside of our high school internship program, we incorporated previous feedback as well as advice from a meeting with Megan Palmer, to re-oriented our approach to outreach. While a more traditional view of outreach may look like sharing a team’s summer research and “inspiring” others outside of the immediate bioengineering community, we’ve adapted our vision for outreach to be more aligned with the needs of high school students:

This looks like breaking out into small teams to work one-on-one with high school students interested in getting feedback on their own personal STEM fair projects; This looks like shifting our high school presentation to focus more on our project ideation process rather than the details of our research; This looks like paneling to field questions that high schoolers care most about.

These additional outreach components were informed by, and often directly grew out of, our High School Internship Program. All this and more is covered in this section.

Ultimately, we aimed to orient our outreach efforts to meet high school students on a personal level and to let those that we work with have power in guiding the conversation towards what they care most about.

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iGEM HS Internship Program: Expanding the Team & Engaging New iGEMers

A successful and implementable internship model for high school participation on undergraduate iGEM teams


While the optimal iGEM team size is 8 to 12 members, the average team contains only 5 full-time equivalents during the summer research months. We all know why this is—college students are busy. Whether it’s a limitation on volunteer hours or it’s a cap on the number of stipends a university can offer, the reality is that most teams are left wanting more person-power at the end of the day.

Another reality is that there are thousands of high school students that have had exposure to the fundamentals of molecular biology through classes, but who are still hoping to gain experience working with hands-on research. In fact, a recent survey showed that 77% of high schoolers “are either extremely or very interested in volunteering to gain work experience.”

Seems like these two realities could perhaps combine synergistically?

……Our team thought so too.

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Our interns after receiving their certificates of completion

Thus, the 2019 Stanford iGEM team launched a high school internship program to increase the bandwidth of the team over the summer and to engage local high school students with exciting hands-on research. While getting this off the ground imposed many hurdles that our team had to creatively overcome, the program was a resounding success from the perspective of both undergraduate and high school team members:

First and foremost, we increased the capacity of our team by 50%, expanding the summer research force from 6 to 9 members each day in the lab. The three additional high school members were able to get exposure to project ideation, experimental design, wetlab skills ranging from PCR to cell-free protein expression, and even got experience formally writing up their research leg of the project to publish on our wiki (see AcrIIA4 project!). For all the high school members involved, our survey results showed that the program both “increased interest in pursuing scientific research” and taught “research and work skills that … will be beneficial beyond iGEM.”

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Our 2019 iGEM team, with three high school interns front and center :)

In addition to the logistical hurdles of getting minors into a research lab, there are also many structural hurdles to effectively running a program totaling 300+ combined volunteer hours. Our team wants the hard work we put into organizing this program to be accessible to other iGEM teams across the world in hopes that we can both encourage and assist other teams to similarly engage a larger community with hands-on bioengineering research.


This section contains both resources for and details on the implementation of the following internship program components:

  • Program Outreach — Spreading the word
  • Application Process
  • Recommendations for Gaining Departmental Support
  • Safety
  • Mentorship Structure
  • Gathering and Implementing Program Feedback
  • Closing Out the Program

Program Outreach

A common pitfall of outreach is to selectively reach out to those who are already well-connected to such opportunities. For our team, being situated in the Bay Area made this all the more pertinent: it would be all too easy to get ample applicants by simply contacting one or two private high schools with already well-established internship programs. We wanted to reach beyond this, however. Thus, we made it our goal to spread the word to people who may not otherwise have the opportunity to get engaged with lab research.

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Email outreach to bioengineering graduate students
To accomplish this we:
  1. Had each Stanford iGEM member contact 2-3 local biology teachers from a variety of high schools.
  2. Had a departmental-wide announcement to graduate students advertising the program and encouraging them to forward our program information widely.
  3. Did in-person outreach to spread the word to local high school students.

We put together and distributed the following informational packet to these different outlets. Note that this is a version prior to the expansion of the program to include minors:

More recently, we improved the cover page to the following (see right). An editable version of this template can be downloaded here for teams interested in building upon this handout to use for their teams

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Updated iGEM Info Handout (template available to download)

Application Process

The goal of the application process was to identify candidates that have demonstrated interest in pursuing science beyond the classroom and that would be committed to the team for the duration of their internships. We emphasized that prior lab experience was not required or expected, and we encourage applicants to highlight other skills and experiences outside of the classroom that may have given them applicable skills to working with a team on a long-term project.

We designed an application process with two phases: a written application with a letter of recommendation from a teacher or mentor, followed by a face-to-face interview with two to three members of the iGEM team.

For the application we asked for a one-page cover letter addressing the following four questions:

  1. Why would you like to work on the Stanford iGEM team this summer?
  2. What level of commitment can you have this summer?
  3. What prior experiences have you had that may be relevant to your experience this summer?
  4. How have your prior experiences uniquely prepared you to contribute to iGEM?

They could submit this cover letter along with basic information at this google form. As an additional resource, here are email templates that our team used throughout the process. Although teams may need to modify these documents to to tailor them for their respective programs, we encourage teams to use them as starting points for their program and to reach out to us if they have any questions.

Gaining Departmental Support

Having minors work supervised exclusively by undergraduates in a lab with a variety of safety hazards creates significant liability. Thus, getting support for a program such as this is inherently political and can be a time-intensive and bureaucratic process—get started well-before summer to leave time for outreach and a substantive application process!

Our first recommendation is to reach out to immediate mentors that know the larger system within which your iGEM team is operating. For us, this was the teaching lab’s Lab Manager. She knew what entity would ultimately need to approve such a program (the BioE Department Chair), she had recommendations for putting together a proposal, she knew some of the safety training requirements and pointed us to resources for minor-specific requirements, and finally she could connect us to the intermediate faculty from which we would need to garner support before proceeding to the department chair.

Our final proposal was a modified version of the aforementioned informational handout, but with an additional letter of support from our lab manager.

Take the time to build relationships across your department

My final more personal recommendation here is to balance being both professional and personal as you build relationships with those across the department. Though it may at times seem like a bureaucratic web of rules, building mutual trust with all those you come across can go much further than you may expect.


Safety was at the forefront, tail-end, and just about every step of the internship program. Before entering lab we had a comprehensive list of required safety trainings and documentation to complete, as well as a detailed list of requirements while working in lab.

In addition to the usual lab safety standards, working with minors poses a few additional hurdles. While these are unique for each university, beyond parental consent and liability forms from parental guardians Stanford also required that all of the undergraduates on our team completed additional “Working with Minors” online trainings, got official background checks, and were fingerprinted.

In addition to the safety checklist, we documented the expected types of lab work in which high school students may participate, and also outlined off-limit work (such as tissue culture and chemical room access). For all time in lab, we ensured high school students would always be paired with at least one undergraduate at all times.

18+ Safety Contract

Mentorship Structure

We approached the mentorship structure with intention: we aimed to create a program that efficiently used both undergraduate and high school students’ time, that would expose interns to a variety of types of work, and that would allow interns to take ownership over part of the project.

We encouraged interns to commit to 6-8 weeks (four week minimum), working in lab 4 hours per day Monday to Friday. Our team quickly realized that it was most effective to have the mornings reserved for the undergrads to do logistical work, long-term project planning, and initial lab work, then to have the interns join us in lab at 1:00PM for the remainder of the day.

We set aside the first 2 weeks for interns to shadow a variety of the sub-projects our team were working on in order to maximize exposure to different lab techniques. We put together a document with descriptions and links to protocols for common lab techniques (including basic instructions for using Benchling), and had interns print and annotate the procedures.

The interns' first assignment: Gaining familiarity with protocols fundamentals

Following this initial phase, we then decided the interns were ready to take on their own sub-project: AcrIIA4 Directed Evolution. With assistance when needed, we let them design primers, submit sequencing data, and ultimately plan their own lab work timeline.

For the final phase we helped the interns write up the content of their sub-project for the website (check out “AcrIIA4 Evolution”!). While recognizing that research is never complete, this final push was critical for pulling together the work they had completed thus far, for recognizing and contextualizing the motivations for the work they were doing, and for ultimately sharing their findings with the larger scientific community.

Gathering and Implementing Program Feedback

From the get-go, we were up front with the interns that the program was a novel one. We highly encouraged open communication and constructive feedback on both positive and negative aspects of the experience so that we could continue to improve.

To further encourage and formalize this process, we had interns fill out an anonymous satisfaction and feedback survey both midway and at the end of the program. We included an input field for a random number the intern could put so we could track performance longitudinally while still maintaining anonymity. We tracked some metrics quantitatively such as overall satisfaction and whether the interns felt their time was being used effectively, and we also gave space for more qualitative feedback such as “What aspects of the program would you like continued” and “Please provide 1 to 3 areas where we could improve to maximize your experience this summer.”

These survey results both helped us to make tweaks to the program midway through the summer, and it also gave us concrete areas to work on for next year (see data below!).

Interns feedback and satisfaction survey

Closing Out the Program

Though it may seem a small detail, we’re strong advocates of a fun last day :) On one of the last days of summer, we invited the three interns back for one last celebration of all the hard work we completed over the summer. We put together personalized certificates of completion for the high schoolers, we got some ice cream, and had a relaxing afternoon enjoying a picnic out on the oval.


Our interns stayed for 6 weeks, 7 weeks, and 11 weeks respectively. We were incredibly grateful for their choice to stay longer than required and to have their continued support with lab work and content creation for the website. By the end of the process they had become experts of PCR, gel extractions, mini-preps, cell-free protein expression, and much more. As they were able to gather expertise from working with a variety of lab members, by the end of the summer I personally would sometimes go to them for help with these protocols when I wanted tips and pointers.

Our survey data showed the following:


Additionally, our short answers sections showed the following:


Personal Takeaways

On a more personal note, the mentorship program taught our undergraduate team a lot about leadership, teamwork, and professionalism. Though capturing all the many things we learned is next to impossible, three main takeaways I came away from the experience with were as follows:

  1. Sometimes you’ve got to work your way up the approval ladder. I was surprised by the complicated web of bureaucracy needed to gain departmental support for the program. Slowly gaining traction for the program and getting approval from different people was a good demonstration of how a larger system (in this case, our BioE department) operates and organizes such a great number of people-power.
  2. Administrational assistants are critical points of support. Building personal relationships with the many points of support for our team in the department was both enjoyable and valuable to our programs advancement and success.
  3. Sometimes you need to put the carriage before the horse. Before we got things formally improved by any means, we showed our excitement for the program by talking about specifics of the vision for the program, making official-looking flyers, and even starting to build points of contacts with local high schools. Though we risked wasting some time if the program were not approved, these steps showed our commitment to the program and showcased the care with which we would manage it.

Visit to Andrew P. Hill HS

When we met with Megan Palmer to brainstorm different ideas for outreach and engagement this year, the interns were part of the conversation. Angelynn, who’s now studying Microbiology at UCLA, came out of the meeting with an idea: what if we could bridge our iGEM team’s outreach efforts with her local high school?

With Angelynn leading the conversation, we were able to coordinate a co-event between iGEM and a program that Angelynn had already been involved with at her local high school. A few week’s later, Angelynn and two iGEM undergraduates were on the train headed down to San Jose to volunteer at a FAST event (Future Advancers of Science and Technology).

Angelynn’s familiarity with the FAST program, as well as her knowledge of her peers’ background knowledge and interests, was incredibly helpful in guiding our preparation. She helped us prepare the presentation to best engage her classmates, and also recognized that the way we could be most helpful to the students was actually by helping them with their own projects that they had recently started working on.

In addition to sharing a 10 minute overview of our team and project with the 30 students in the FAST bioengineering track, we also fielded questions about our paths to pursuing science. Finally, the program broke out into smaller teams so we could work one-on-one with students to help them brainstorm and ideate different STEM fair projects for the upcoming competition.

This natural extension of the High School Internship Program was an exciting success that we plan to continue with next year.

Presentations to HS Students @UTL

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Draven Rane details some of our data based on students’ questions.

For part of the summer our team co-inhabited the Uytengsu Teaching Lab with students in the Stanford Online High School biology program. As is customary of our community-based lab space, we built a relationship with the program’s lead, Dr. Kristina Vetter.

On one of the last days of the program, four members from our team gave an abridged version of our presentation followed by a 20 minute panel where we fielded questions on everything from further details of our project to how we got inspired to join iGEM.

We also took the time during this presentation to share details on the internship program to get the word out in case students were interested in applying to join the team next summer.

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Members of the Stanford Online High School

RMHS Mentorship

This year, we also mentored the up-and-coming Richard Montgomery High School (RMHS) iGEM Team. They were interested in applying our technology.

Upcoming Events

We are in the midst of planning two additional events, one in late fall and another mid winter. The first of these two events will be a Wetlab Workshop hosted by BIOME, our larger student group. We are still in the planning phase but hope to create a meaningful experience for people that balances weltab, content delivery, and meaningful experimental results that hopefully are not already predetermined. This event will be aimed at engaging frosh with bioengineering and to raise interest in BIOME.

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The second event will be an infosession for iGEM similar to what we put together last year. We want to make sure that we reach as many people as possible with this opportunity, hopefully expanding beyond the immediate engineering department. We recognize the value of an interdisciplenary team and want to make sure to emphasize the well-roundedness of the iGEM experience to engage a variety of students.

Information about these events will be available on our student group’s website,

Looking Forward

Our team is incredibly excited for the 2020 iGEM Internship Program. We’ve decided as a team that three interns each summer is the perfect number to balance our time, and we are looking forward to going through the outreach and recruitment process beginning again in the spring!

We were not expecting the Internship Program to be the leading component of our team’s outreach efforts this year; however, due to the high school students direct connections to and familiarity with local high school students, the program ended up being a critical pillar that guided and enriched outreach across the board.

We hope that the resources on this page can help other iGEM teams to launch similar programs in order to both increase person-power for their teams, and most importantly, engage a larger population with hands-on genetic engineering. We would be happy to assist any teams that reach out to us with questions about our process or about any of the resources provided on this page. See our contact information at the bottom of this page.

As we gear up for the 2020 iGEM Internship Program, this time around we’ll be equipped with resources to ease the program approval and outreach processes, constructive feedback on what to maintain versus improve from last year, and even a few descriptions of the program in the interns’ own words to add to our flyer for next year:

“At iGEM, I was able to be an active and engaged part of a genetic engineering research project with Stanford undergraduates. The program is exciting and pushes scientific boundaries with the support of Stanford’s amazing research facilities. To be involved in such cutting-edge research as a high schooler is unparalleled.”
“iGEM is a great way to determine if you like bioengineering, build experience with basic lab work, and advance your research and writing skills!”
“The iGEM internship program is an immersive research experience that provides authentic insight into synthetic biology research and teaches critical lab/problem solving skills. Mentorship happens under the guidance of a fun team that is open to sharing the research process and answering questions along the way.”
Irene, Elena and Angelynn (our three interns), followed by Alec, Ayush, Draven, Sunnie, and Conrad—the 2019 Stanford iGEM team.