STEM Pathways Hosts Mini-Jamboree

On February 11, 2017 at Boston University’s Photonics Center, the Living Computing Project’s newly launched outreach program, STEM Pathways, hosted their first event, the Mini-Jamboree. The Mini-Jamboree, named after the iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) Giant Jamboree, was an interactive day of learning to encourage accessibility to synthetic biology and iGEM to high school and undergraduate students facilitated by students and mentors of the BostonU iGEM team and STEM Pathways administrators.

There was a grand total of 76 registered attendees for the Mini-Jamboree; however, due to a sudden blizzard causing two snow days for Boston Public Schools, the Mini-Jamboree was nearly cancelled. Luckily, the sun shined on Saturday and the Mini-Jamboree continued in full swing with around 50 participants, most of whom were high school students. One of the most exciting facts for facilitators was that there were two attendees from London, England!

The Mini-Jamboree included several events throughout the day including a programs fair, an introduction to synthetic biology, interactive breakout sessions, a current problem that synthetic biology can help, and an iGEMmer panel discussion.

The programs fair included Boston University STEM clubs, high school program RISE, and Collabots. Attendees were ushered into a large gathering area where they watched an introductory video about STEM Pathways and played Synthetic Biology Bingo, created by members of the BostonU 2016 iGEM team. Attendees that won Bingo received a plush E. coli as a reward, making everyone laugh and very eager to win their own bacterium.

After Bingo, attendees broke off into three groups based on their age to complete their customized interactive activities.

High School students were tasked with using arts and crafts supplies to make a conceptual 3-D model of an experiment used to transfer DNA to a living organism. They then performed a 2016 BostonU iGEM bioethics forum about the option to genetically engineer mosquitoes to combat malaria. Students were able to discuss and critically think about a current hot topic that synthetic biology is presently being used to solve.

Undergraduate students learned about genetic circuits using “Bactographs”, black and white photographs produced by bacteria. Students were then guided to a shared lab facility in 36 Cummington Street where they were given a tour of a synthetic biology research lab, a safety training session by Labster, and performed gel electrophoresis.

Parents and teachers engaged in a conversation led by STEM Pathways administrators, iGEM mentors, and a member from iGEM Headquarters about the significance of STEM education in public schools and how they can engage the next generation of scientists and engineers to be involved in community programs.

After lunch, attendees were part of a discussion about the impact of synthetic biology by performing a case study analysis on cleaning the Charles River. Students were tasked with brainstorming solutions to address untreated waste discharge, remove toxins, and reduce stormwater runoff and sewer overflow. Answers ranged from engineering microbes to break down toxins and talking to government officials to better regulate city sewage.

The last event of the Mini-Jamboree was a panel discussion composed of members of the iGEM community and moderated by Living Computing Project lead principal investigator and Boston University Associate Professor Douglas Densmore. Topics included global problems synthetic biology can resolve in the next decade, memorable experiences from working in synthetic biology, and expanding exposure to synthetic biology.

Prior to the Mini-Jamboree, the majority of attendees had a vague understanding about synthetic biology at best. At the end of the Mini-Jamboree, one high school student described synthetic biology as “changing the world with every form, every discipline in one movement” and an undergraduate described the field as “the manipulation of cells/DNA in order to improve our interaction with the world and quality of life.” By the end of the day, all attendees had learned more about, explored, and gained confidence in synthetic biology and said they would tell a friend about STEM Pathways.