Every year the University of Washington College of Engineering invites K-8 students to participate in Engineering Discovery Days. There, the students engage in interactive activities put on by the engineering undergraduates. Like in years past, the UW iGEM team was invited to teach students about the basics of synthetic biology and biotechnology.

Students having fun "digesting DNA" and learning about synthetic biology!

This year, we decided to teach basic restriction digest cloning using paper, tape, a shoebox and candy. We gave each student a single sheet of paper which contained two long blocks representing a vector backbone and an insert, complete with RFC10 compatible cutsites. They were instructed to cut these strips of paper out, serving as the process of PCR. Then, the ends were “restriction digested” with scissors along the dotted lines. The two pieces fit like a puzzle, and appropriate base-pairing could be observed. After they matched up the “sticky ends,” we gave them tape, which represents ligase, to complete their expression plasmid.

iGEM alumni sharing her love for science.

The ligated plasmid was then ready to be transformed into our shoebox cell. While we shook the box, we used the secret compartment in the back to throw in some Jolly Rancher “protein” that their expression plasmid encodes. After that, we lysed the cell by opening the box so the student could extract both their plasmid and candy proteins to complete the protein expression process.

We enjoyed this opportunity to teach the local students about the basics of what we do in the lab, and spread our excitement about science. Although there was a lot enthusiasm from the students, this was also met with confusion and a lot of questions. We quickly realized that many of the students did not yet have a solid foundation in biology, and background explanations were key to understanding the cloning activity. For example, we had to explain how a specific “flavor” of gene encodes a very specific protein -- in our case, the corresponding flavor of candy. This required us to put our knowledge in simplified terms so that even young children could understand and confirmed that we knew the processes well enough to do so. This experience left the whole team more inspired to further educate the public about synthetic biology.

Teaching students how to clone using paper and tape!