January 2, 2019
Four years ago the NISE Network received a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to tackle conversations in museums between public audiences and scientists about the emerging field of synthetic biology. The timing was right for our Network partners to tackle this topic, which regularly makes headlines for scientific breakthroughs and new applications ranging from genetically altered foods and animals to gene therapy that has the possibility of preventing or curing diseases to the potentially most controversial topic of genetically engineering humans for certain traits.
The Building with Biology project was a team effort and we want to extend our deepest thanks to all our project partners, the informal science educators and scientists, who helped to developed the activities included in the physical Building with Biology kit, as well as the three public dialogue (forum) programs that further encouraged multi-directional conversations among scientists in the public to learn more about synthetic biology, as well as from each another.
We enjoyed hearing from so many of our partners about their experiences bringing a new topic into their organization and community, and also how many are incorporating the project's public dialogue format into their own programming further opening up opportunities to engage public audiences in new and exciting science topics.
Building with Biology Resources
- Building with Biology digital kit (2016)
- Public Engagement with Science: A guide to creating conversations among publics and scientists for mutual learning and societal decision-making (2018)
- Editing Our Evolution: Rewriting the Human Genome forum (2018)
- Should We Edit the Genome? forum (2017)
- Should We Engineer the Mosquito? forum (2016)
To assess impacts on participants of the Building with Biology events, evaluators from the Museum of Science, Boston and the Science Museum of Minnesota trained local data collectors to gather surveys from participants at their sites. Many thanks to everyone who took part in this effort. Thanks to your involvement, the evaluation team gathered more than 1,400 surveys from 34 of the forum sites and 43 event sites across the U.S.! The evaluation focused on three main topics: participants’ learning, what they valued about their participation, and how participation impacted their interest in public engagement with science and science topics. Key findings for each of these themes are described below.
What do participants learn from their public engagement with science (PES) experiences?
Both forum and event participants reported learning facts about and applications of synthetic biology, as well as learning about the field’s relation to society and individuals. For instance, forum participants frequently learned about other participants’ views (see graph below), and the societal impacts of science. Event participants also learned about societal aspects of science, and often described learning about the overall significance of the scientific enterprise. For example, one event participant wrote, “We learned how important science is to our country.”
How much did you know about what other people think about synthetic biology before this forum, and how much do you know after the forum?(n=696)*
What do participants value about their participation in PES events?
Forum and event participants often reported valuing the learning they gained from their PES experiences. A forum participant shared, “[I value] learning more about the particular topic, learning more about a concrete application of gene drives.” Additional values focused on the types of interactions the participants had: forum respondents valued hearing diverse opinions and discussing the topic, whereas event respondents valued the interactive and kid-friendly nature of the events, as well as the access to experts. For example, a forum participant wrote, “I value seeing four scientists and being able to see opposing views” and an event participant described, “I loved the hands-on activities that helped illustrate the concepts of DNA and viruses.”
Does participation in a PES event increase participants’ interest in public engagement or science topics?
Respondents to both the forum and event surveys reported increased interest in future behaviors related to PES and synthetic biology. This was especially true of event participants who engaged with multiple hands-on activities, and had multiple two-way conversations with facilitators. The chart below shows that over 60% of event respondents reported that their interest in talking to scientists about the impacts of scientific research in their community and checking out news stories about synthetic biology had increased “somewhat” or “a great deal.”
How much did the event increase your interest in the following?
- If you’re interested in learning more about the impacts of the Building with Biology project on the people who participated in the forums and events, you can read the project's full impact evaluation report
- The team also published a journal article that compares the affordances of forums and hands-on activities
- If you’re interested in reading about the project’s impacts on professionals, check out Rockman et al’s summative evaluation report
Thank you to our Building with Biology project team and partners
The Multi-Site Public Engagement with Science-Synthetic Biology (MSPES-SynBio) project is funded by the National Science Foundation and was led by the following core partners:
- Museum of Science, Boston
- American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)
- BioBuilder Educational Foundation
- Science Museum of Minnesota
- Sciencenter, Ithaca
- Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (Synberc)
Partners who received Building with Biology resources to host hands-on activity events and forums
The following organizations were awarded:
- a physical Building with Biology kit in Summer 2016: http://www.nisenet.org/building-biology-kit-locations
- the 2018 Editing Our Evolution forum: http://www.nisenet.org/blog/post/announcing-building-biology-editing-our-evolution-forum-and-stipend-recipients
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number DRL 1421179. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
 Wilcoxon Signed Ranks (n=696, Z=-19.76, p<.001)