Project Proposal: Synthetic Biology for Schools: A multidisciplinary approach

The Idea

The synthetic biology community in Norwich and Cambridge are working on several ideas for developing educational materials, tools and practicals to bring multidisciplinary science and synthetic biology into schools. Some of these resources are already in development. In addition, open hardware is being created that could be used by schools to support practicals in this area. While each of these resources are valuable on their own, by bringing them together there is an opportunity for increasing their reach and effectiveness, and therefore their overall impact. We propose to

i) identify relevant resources from Norwich, Cambridge and other sources and bring them together into a comprehensive set to explain the principles, tools and applications of synthetic biology;

ii) develop video and infographic materials that provide a context for these resources;

iii) bring together key stakeholders and facilitate discussions with potential end users, and;

iv) identify routes for dissemination and create an action plan to maximise their use. The outcome will be a complete package of activities, supporting information and hardware that can be successfully used in schools to introduce synthetic biology with a focus on plant chassis, and to provide learning opportunities across a wide range of disciplines. Our intention within the scope of this project is to target the resources for local schools, but subsequently we can look for national and international opportunities for dissemination.

We will also keep an open mind about target groups as there may be opportunities to pitch the resources towards different groups such as undergraduates, DIY bio communities and the general public.


Who We Are

  1. Colette Matthewman (, John Innes Centre.

  2. Jenni Rant (, The SAW Trust, Norwich.

  3. Nadia Radzman (, John Innes Centre.

  4. Samantha Fox (, Youth Aspiration Champion at John Innes Centre.

  5. Lawrence Pearce (,Senior Creative Digital Producer at John Innes Centre.

  6. Nicola Patron (Nicola.Patron@sainsbury­, The Sainsbury Laboratory.

  7. Fernán Federici (, University of Cambridge

  8. Tim Rudge (, University of Cambridge

  9. Neil Pearson (, The Genome Analysis Centre

  10. Tim Marzullo, Backyardbrains

  11. Lalitha Sundaram (, University of Cambridge.

  12. Steven Burgess (, University of Cambridge.

  13. Ben Miller ( University of East Anglia.



This project aims to increase the impact of educational resources that are already being developed across several disciplines in Norwich and Cambridge, and identify areas that require further attention and resource development. We will build a synthetic biology education package with a focus on plant chassis and distribute these to schools.

Defining available resources

The first stage of the project will be to identify a number of resources that can be brought together to form a comprehensive synthetic biology education package for schools. Several projects have already been identified, where resources are in the pipeline:

1. Electronic and genetic circuits. A practical is being developed based on a successful outreach exhibit that used electronic circuits built with arduino kits to represent and explain equivalent genetic circuits as well as some of the engineering principles underlying synthetic biology such as standardisation and modularisation (Nadia Radzman, Nicola Patron, Colette Matthewman).

2. Molecular toolkit and open microscope as a kit for schools (Fernan Federici, Tim Rudge, Neil Pearson, Tim Marzullo). A separate OpenPlant Fund proposal has been submitted for the development of this specific resource.

3. A set of practicals using a MiniPCR kit and gels to do screening, cloning etc (Jenni Rant)

4. A set of synthetic biology case studies to show the diverse uses of synthetic biology and to prompt discussions about responsible research and innovation (Colette Matthewman, Lalitha Sundaram).

As well as using case studies from OpenPlant, Norwich Research Park, and Cambridge, we will approach the other SBRCs for further case studies. We will identify further resources that can be used, for example from Norwich or Cambridge, or from other sources such as the BioBuilder book (O’Reilly publishers) or iGEM projects. We will also look at open hardware projects that will provide affordable sources of equipment for the practicals. Through this process we will be able to define areas where resources are not available and look for possible solutions.

An early meeting will bring together resource developers to plan how these resources can work together and to begin to consider possible dissemination routes.

  • Deliverable 1: A list of resources to be developed (month 1)

  • Deliverable 2: Meeting to plan the structure of the educational package (month 2)

  • Deliverable 3: Draft versions of resources ready for discussion at stakeholder workshop (month 3)

Stakeholder Workshop

Once the resources are taking shape and materials are coming together (half way into the project), we will invite key stakeholders to attend a workshop to engage with the resource development process. During this workshop, resource developers can consult with experts in science communication and school engagement and professional educationalists and discover ways to maximise the relevance of the resource package, e.g. by tying it in with the national curriculum. A graphic designer (to be identified), and a video producer (Lawrence Pearce) will be bought on board at this point to develop a set of infographics and videos that

provide a context into which the resources fit, and to bring some cohesion to the full package. Routes to dissemination will be an ongoing consideration throughout the project. Options should be identified and explored in the early stages of the project. However, the workshop will provide an opportunity to create a strategy for distribution and dissemination with the stakeholders.

  • Deliverable 4: Stakeholder workshop (month 3)

  • Deliverable 5: A dissemination plan (month 3)

Delivering the package

After the workshop, the focus will be on pulling all the resources together into a complete package, together with infographics and videos. We will create web pages to share the information and instructions, and we will build prototype kits, including necessary hardware, to be tested in schools. We will begin to implement our dissemination plan.

  • Deliverable 6: A comprehensive set of open online resources and supporting information (month 6)

  • Deliverable 7: Prototype kits for testing in schools (month 6)

Follow up

We will look for follow up funding that will enable us to create a number of physical kits and distribute them to schools.


Benefits and outcomes

The outcome of this project will be a comprehensive and cohesive package of synthetic biology educational resources for schools that will be accessible and openly available. These will be shared on the web and physical kits will be piloted in local schools. Through the project we will identify avenues for dissemination and distribution. The outcomes will be achieved by bringing together current efforts in educational resource development across disciplines in both Norwich and Cambridge, and through engagement with potential stakeholders.

The package will bring together educational materials, tools and practicals from different disciplines that feed into synthetic biology in an accessible way, providing an opportunity for school pupils with a wide range of interests to engage with synthetic biology. The final resource package will have a substantial plant synthetic biology element as well as introducing open technologies to the school and providing a resource for learning about responsible research and innovation.

As the project develops we will approach external organisations to provide further routes for dissemination and distribution such as Science And Plants for Schools (SAPS), The Teacher Science Network (TSN), Gatsby Plant Science Educational Programme, Bento Bio and BioBuilder, and look at options for further financial support.

The benefits of putting together a comprehensive and multidisciplinary package of educational resources and embedding it in the context of synthetic biology are many. We hope that this project will help us to increase awareness of synthetic biology and our own work, break down barriers and challenge misconceptions of synthetic biology and genetic modification, inspire the next generation to consider careers in STEMM and provide a basis for the skills that we require in synthetic biologists of the future.



Workshops will take place at the John Innes Centre, where facilities will be available without cost. A small budget will be required for catering and travel expenses. We estimate a maximum of £500.

Video and graphic elements will cost around £2,000.

The remaining £1,500 will be put towards production of a couple of physical resource kits to be tested in local schools, including the necessary hardware. Following this project we intend to apply for further funding from alternative sources to produce a larger number of kits for distribution.