Team:Tacoma RAINmakers/Public Engagement

Team:TacomaRAINmakers/Notebook -


Public Engagement and Education

We strongly believe that education is an important part of the growth of synthetic biology. Most of our team members have little or no prior background in science, but iGEM has opened up so many opportunities for us. We’d like to extend iGEM’s philosophy to others and make synthetic biology more accessible to everyone.

This year, our team has designed and presented scientific lessons to students who visit our lab for field trips. Expanding the work we began last year, we hosted a second annual Bioengineering Summer Camp, introducing 9th and 10th-grade students to the basics of synthetic biology. And of course, we let all these students know they could join our iGEM team in the future! Our goal was to show our community that synthetic biology and biotech are important topics to learn and can be done right here in our hometown.

Hands-on learning has been shown to tremendously improve subject retention and student engagement [1]. Students with invisible disabilities such as ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and ASD are especially benefited by the integration of hands-on learning to curriculums [2,3]. Unfortunately, schools are often unable to provide access to hands-on learning, especially in fields such as molecular biology. We were given the incredible opportunity to participate in iGEM and we wanted to leverage that opportunity to support other students in our community. Through our efforts this iGEM season, we directly impacted local students and developed activities and lesson plans to help spread the integration of hands-on learning to communities around the world.

Accessibility was a crucial aspect of our outreach. Our work had the potential to be especially beneficial to students with invisible disabilities. However, we knew that could easily be lost if we weren’t conscious of how we designed our activities. Small decisions like using a Sans-Serif font (suspected to be easier for people with dyslexia to read [4,5]), or avoiding brightly colored papers (can be difficult for students with sensory processing disorders to read from), can have a huge impact on a student’s experience. We put effort into designing learning environments that all students could thrive in. We used numerous methods to present content, ensuring that material would be retained regardless of learning style.

Visitation STEM Academy

April 3rd, 2019

On April 3, 2019, we were invited to Visitation Catholic STEM Academy, a private school in Tacoma that teaches pre-Kindergarten through eighth-graders. Members from our 2018 iGEM team had met teachers from the school and that led to our invitation to be at the school's STEM fair. We set up a booth focusing on microorganisms and microscopes. Students and parents looked through slides filled with pond water and Rotifers, as well as cheek cells so students could look for the nuclei. It was a great opportunity to expose students interested in STEM to RAIN, iGEM, and research. iGEMers also had the opportunity to talk to the public about our project idea and received positive responses to our ideas about improving legume function. Along with the microscope and slides, we also had a handout to show the parts of a microscope and familiarize students with what they might see.

Microscope Anatomy Handout

Stadium HCA

April 19th, 2019

On April 19th, we welcomed 63 ninth-grade students enrolled in the Stadium High School Health Careers Academy, a program dedicated to providing equitable access to early medical career education. As students in a closely related, and often underrepresented field, we were eager to partner with HCA classes. A friend of our organization, Dr. Arun Mathews, generously donated his time as a keynote speaker for the field trip. Arun is a Chief Medical Officer for MultiCare Health System and founder of Nerdcore Medical. A strong advocate of learning through play and survivor of medical school, Arun created a fantasy realm reflecting the real-world interactions of bacterial infections and antibiotic treatments in his book, Bacterionomicon. His most recent game, Healing Blade: Defenders of Soma, is available on Nerdcore Medical. Learning through play goes hand-in-hand with hands-on education. Many subjects require a deeper understanding of abstract concepts that cannot be related to direct action. By developing a game around the topic, a kinesthetic aspect is associated with the topic.

We developed eight stations with hands-on activities to introduce research concepts to students. Each student carried a lab notebook with explanations of each station and reflection questions to encourage deeper thinking. Our stations included cell biology (microscopy), cell biology (candy cell models), biotechnology (gel electrophoresis), biotechnology (blue led transilluminator), microbiology (antibiotic resistance), microbiology (synthetic biology), (Bio)Chemistry (pH strips), (Bio)Chemistry (PTC genetic test strips).

Attached you can find the directions and printed materials for the activities we used at this field trip.

Table Activities Mini Lab Notebook Handouts at Tables

Mt. Tahoma HCA

June 3rd, 2019

Not long after we hosted the Stadium HCA class, we were contacted by the Mt. Tahoma HCA class! Excited to refine our activities and spread SynBio to another group of students, we scheduled a field trip for June 3rd! Thirteen ninth-grade students visited our labs to learn about the world of research! With a smaller group size, we had a more relaxed time at each station and each person got to spend a little more time on each activity. We were joined again by Dr. Arun Mathews, who talked about the revolution of learning through play and introduced the bridge between patient care and research. We used the same eight stations we developed for the Stadium HCA class, with updates made based on the student’s post-trip reflections. This included a swap of banana-smelling bacteria with GFP-expressing bacteria during the synthetic biology demo because it was taking too long to properly describe the science behind the Eau that Smell kit.

Table Activities Mini Lab Notebook

Arlington STEAM Club

July 11th, 2019

The Tacoma RAINmakers hosted students from Arlington Elementary School’s girls’ STEAM club as part of our mission to spread passion for science in the Tacoma community, and to support gender diversity in the science fields. Catherine started off the field trip by explaining our team’s goals and reasoning for genetically engineering rhizobia. Matt, the operations manager of RAIN Incubator, briefly explained RAIN’s mission to help foster STEM companies, educate students, and conduct research.

Afterwards, Caroline gave a lecture to introduce simple biology terms. The students were tasked to cooperate with each other and their teachers to rank the introduced biology terms from smallest to largest (DNA, chromosomes, cells, tissues, organs, organisms). They were also given a tour of the RAIN labs.

In their last activity, each student made a DNA necklace by combining their spit, a salt solution, a cell lysis solution, and isopropanol into a tube, then transferring that mixture into a smaller, personally decorated microcentrifuge tube with a string attached. The students could see clumps of their DNA at the bottom of the microcentrifuge tubes, and brought their DNA necklaces home as a souvenir of their field trip to RAIN.

Included is a link to the DNA extraction protocol that we created. This protocol has been modified from the protocols we found online for DNA extractions. During previous demos using the original protocol, we met some people who didn't want to put the salt solution (Gatorade) in their mouths to resuspend their cells. Younger kids also had a hard time with this step because they tend to accidentally swallow the solution and result in little to no DNA yield. Our solution was to have participants use their saliva to scrape their cheek cells using their teeth and then spitting into the resuspension solution. We have seen no difference using this modification versus the original protocol but believe we have increased accessibility and safety of the protocol by eliminating the need for people to put something in their mouths.

DNA Extraction Protocol

Propel Camp

July 25th, 2019

On July 25, we hosted the Propel STEM Cohort. Twenty 7-8th grade girls joined us for a day of fun! To better suit a younger audience, we chose to make five longer stations, rather than using the more fast-paced eight-station format we developed for the HCA classes. The stations included microscopes, pipetting, gel electrophoresis and blue LED transilluminator, pH testing, and fluorescent bacteria.

Short Mini Notebook

BioEngineering Summer Camp

July 29th - August 2nd, 2019

At the end of July, we helped host the RAIN Incubator BioEngineering Summer Camp! This camp is a 5 day hands-on intensive introducing 15 ninth and tenth-grade students to synthetic biology. Last year, our team was able to assist with the camp’s debut. After an overwhelmingly positive response from last year, we were thrilled at the chance to do even more this year. We used the feedback we received to improve the experiments and activities we’d created in the past, and we introduced three new experiments! One of our best "successes" is that a graduate of the 2018 camp joined the 2019 iGEM team and would be helping with the camp too! With a past camper on the team, we knew that we would have an unfiltered impression of each activity!

As iGEMmers, we tend to think data is more fun than most people. Originally, one of our activities had an extensive data collection and interpretation portion used with the BioBuilder “Eau that smell” kit. While surveys from campers indicated that it was an enjoyable part of the activity, we discovered that while interesting at first, trying to quantify that data quickly became disengaging. This year we shifted the focus of the activity to lab skills and raw concepts. Rather than trying to determine whether a camper’s nose was as sensitive as a gas chromatograph, we dug into plasmid functions and applications. We saw an incredible improvement in student engagement with this shift. While we still addressed data and the importance of quantitative data and standards, we broke it up into parts and discussed other topics in between.

We began the week with lab safety. Campers were given copies of the lab rules prior to the start of the camp, but to ensure a thorough understanding and prevent any unnecessary risk, we went over it again in person. After a lecture and discussion on rules and safety, we passed out copies of the iGEM safety violation search and find. Four teams of campers and two teams of iGEMmers raced to identify as many hazards as they could. The winning camper team found a grand total of 13 hazards. Both teams of iGEMmers were disqualified for adding violations to the image after reaching a tie at 22 hazards. After everyone was safe, they learned pipetting and gel electrophoresis. We finished off the day with a game of Synthetic Biology Jeopardy!

The next day, campers welcomed guest speaker Dr. Arun Mathews, who talked about treating bacterial infections, antibiotic resistance, making a “microbe superhero”, and of course the Bacterionomicon, a sci-fi fantasy book that Dr. Mathews authored to creatively tell the story of antibiotics and pathogens! We followed up by extracting DNA from our own cheek cells and making DNA necklaces. After that, we played a protein folding game created by MiniPCR where students played as different amino acids and had to respond to environmental conditions accordingly! The protein folding game was both a fun opportunity for team-building and a great way to learn about amino acids! We did find that it ended more quickly than we expected. We’re currently working to extend the activity by integrating new environmental conditions and protein to protein interaction! The activity is in early development but we hope to attach an updated version of the activity as soon as our wiki thaws! We finished the day off with a lesson on the importance of accuracy. Using bovine serum albumin, Coomassie Plus dye, and a 96-well plate, campers did a protein paint-by-numbers! After each group completed their “painting”, we compared the plates. While they all thought they followed the directions, even small mistakes made their wells a completely different color.

On day three, we investigated genetic mutations and SNPs (single-nucleotide polymorphisms) with PTC! We worked with PTC taster paper to determine who among us was a supertaster. We ran PCR on our cheek cell DNA extractions, digested the samples, then ran DNA gels to determine if we had a certain PTC taster mutation.

On day four, students prepared banana bacteria cultures and created agar artwork on petri dishes. The agar art workshop was hosted in collaboration with the American Society for Microbiology’s Agar Art Competition. This was a great way to engage the campers in a nationally sponsored event and show them that our home of Tacoma is part of the larger biotech and synbio network. We ended the day with Miracle Berry tasting.

As the camp came to a close, we spent the morning analyzing our banana bacteria. Campers welcomed more guest speakers: Jennifer Skenfield and Dr. Stan Langevin. We had a group discussion on bioethics and reflected on the week. We closed the camp with a Bioengineering Reception, inviting parents and members of the community to see what this amazing group of campers spent the week learning! Directions on how to prepare these activities, handouts, and worksheets for students, the slides we used, and the agenda of our camp are attached! All of the campers had a newfound appreciation for science, and four even asked how they could join our 2020 iGEM team! We were so glad to see that our efforts were well received and we’re excited to see how we can make an even better camp next year!

  1. Crime Scene Simulation – Practiced using micropipettes, loading gels, and analyzing gel electrophoresis results.
  2. Microscopes & Cells – Compared cell types from samples collected by the student, learned proper microscope and slide usage.
  3. DNA Extraction Necklace – Collected own cheek cells, isolated DNA from cells, and collected it into a vial to wear as a necklace. This extracted DNA was also used in the PCR Screening Lab (#5) later in the week.
  4. Protein Concentration Artwork – Used micropipettes to accurately dilute small volumes of protein into Bradford reagent, a dye that changes color depending on the concentration of protein present.
  5. Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) Screening – Performed PCR on own DNA to identify the presence of a gene that allows one to taste a chemical known as PTC. Students followed the steps for running PCR amplification and gel electrophoresis.
  6. Eau that Smell – Made use of genetically engineered bacterial cells to demonstrate substrate-enzyme function. Showed how bioengineering can alter biology to make surprising outcomes that challenge our idea of what is possible.
  7. Miracle Berries – Explored how food science can be used in biotechnology. Students experimented with food flavors before and after the use of Miraculin, the chemical found in Miracle Berries.
  8. Measuring pH – Explored pH in a variety of household items using natural pH indicators (e.g.,red cabbage juice and butterfly pea flowers).
  9. Bacteria Artwork – Used a bacterial “paint palette” (expressing different proteins; GFP, RFP, and non-transformed) to streak agar plates and create art. This activity was performed in partnership with the American Society for Microbiology Agar Art competition.

Guest lectures:
  • Dr. David Hirschberg, PhD, Founder of RAIN Incubator, Affiliate Associate Professor, University of Washington, Tacoma – “Wearable Technology and the Future of Synthetic Biology”
  • Dr. Arun Mathews, MD, Internal Medicine Physician at Multicare and Founder of Nerdcore Medical – “Using Gaming to Learn about Complex Medical Concepts”
  • Albert McMurry, Owner of Reverend Al’s Bona Fide Potents – “The Science of Flavors & Taste”
  • Jennifer Skenfield MSHS, BSN, RRT, CCRA, Head of Clinical Research at Merck Research Laboratories – “Clinical Research as a Career”
  • Dr. Stan Langevin, PhD, Research Scientist, University of Washington and Founder, Orneon Health, – “Gut Microbiome & Our Health”
  • Dr. Jenna McKee-Johnson, PhD, Teacher, Science and Math Institute and Head of Scientific Operations, RAIN Incubator – “Bioethics and How Synthetic Biology is Changing How We Think of Genetics”

Camper reflections:

“I am glad to have come to this camp to get a start of Bioengineering. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to get into being an engineer but once I saw this camp I decided to give it a try. The first couple of days I was nervous but now I’m almost 100% positive that I want to become an engineer. The two things that really stood out were the miracle berries and the GMOs. I had a great time and hope I can do things like this in the future.”
-Cody, 9th Grade

“I really enjoyed my time here at RAIN and hope others did too. It was a good experience learning how to micropipette. I got to meet new people which was also fun. I also liked the fact of all the considerations for food options provided for people that had allergies or other reasons like me. Maybe next year I’ll become an iGEM person, who knows. Well, I hope you continue to inspire others and continue to run this foundation and thank you.”
-Alman, 10th Grade

“This week has been so mind blowing, I’ve learned so much. I’ve learned a ton about science and pipetting and bacteria. The miracle berry lab was my favorite because I’ve always wanted to try one. The pH level lab was also super fun. Pipetting is hard but I’m starting to get the hang of it. I definitely recommend this camp. If you just want to get out of the house and learn something new. It’s also helpful if you are taking Chem 110 as a sophomore.”
-Dakota, 10th Grade

Camper statistics:

Genders – 8 Female, 7 Male
Grades – 4 rising Freshmen, 11 rising Sophomores
Identified Race –
1 Asian
3 Black
1 Latinx
6 Multi-Racial
4 White
Schools – 9 different high schools around the Tacoma-Pierce County region


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2 - Mccarthy, Cheryl B. “Effects of Thematic-Based, Hands-on Science Teaching versus a Textbook Approach for Students with Disabilities.” Journal of Research in Science Teaching, vol. 42, no. 3, 2005, pp. 245–263., doi:10.1002/tea.20057.

3 - Brigham, Frederick J., et al. “Science Education and Students with Learning Disabilities.” Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, vol. 26, no. 4, 2011, pp. 223–232., doi:10.1111/j.1540-5826.2011.00343.x.

4 - British Dyslexia Association. “Dyslexia Friendly Style Guide.” British Dyslexia Association,

5 - Rello, Luz, and Ricardo Baeza-Yates. “Good Fonts for Dyslexia.” Proceedings of the 15th International ACM SIGACCESS Conference on Computers and Accessibility, 2013, pp. 14:1–14:8., doi:10.1145/2513383.2513447.