The Institute of the Americas concluded its 5th Summer Camp on Science and Innovation at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) in July 2014. The 2014 group of 40 students was the largest since the beginning of the camp.  High school students attended from twelve countries: Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Venezuela and the U.S. The students, all in high school and Spanish-speakers, came from a variety of backgrounds but had a common goal – to pursue academic studies in science, technology, engineering and math.

The success of the camp was based on a well-balanced combination of lectures, hands-on team projects, lab time, field visits, guest speakers and the dormitory experience at UCSD’s Eleanor Roosevelt College.

Pivotal to this year’s success was our new collaboration with Dr. Justin Pahara (Synbiota Inc.) and Dr. Wendy Ochoa (MoBio). Dr. Pahara flew from Canada to lead a three-day crash course on hands-on genetic engineering.

Dr. Pahara’s and Dr. Ochoa’s execution of the class was phenomenal. Everything was strategically planned out and, with Dr. Ochoa’s help, the workshop was run entirely in Spanish.

“It was exciting to see a synthetic biology workshop such as this being run in Spanish! It was the first time I’ve done intense science like this with realtime translation – very cool and extra engaging,” says Dr. Pahara.

The first day of the three-part session started with an introduction to synthetic biology, which was then followed up by an extensive discussion of the ethics of bioengineering.

Is genetic engineering good or bad? What are the possibilities of genetic engineering and what can you actually do with it?  The students were immediately engaged with Dr. Pahara’s enthusiasm and passion for teaching. There were a lot of questions, the students were, however, very anxious to get to the exciting part – actually doing science.

Dr. Pahara explained that they were going to engineer E. coli bacteria to be colourful (red, blue, yellow for single colours, as well as combinations of colours such as or-ange, green, and purple), and they also discussed how colour is formed in the living organism. The students were alternatively ecstatic and impatient because they could not wait to actually start the activity.

Before any DNA assembly could take place the students had to design the DNA they wanted to build using an open source tool called GENtle.  Students loaded the DNA parts that are included in the Rainbow Factory Kit into GENtle and created their DNA circuit using a simple pick-and-place user interface. There, they were able to see the actual DNA code that their plasmid would be composed of. After much consideration and discussion, the students assembled their DNA design using real DNA from the kit. DNA was assembled one block at a time on magnetic beads using a simple hands-on method until they had as-sembled their full DNA design. Next, they separated their DNA from the beads and had pure DNA.

Finally, they put their DNA into E. coli bacteria using a process called transformation. After mixing their DNA with bacterial cells, the group completed a “heatshock” which caused the DNA to enter the cells. Then, they incubated the cells and put them onto agar plates (like jello) and incubated the plates overnight. The next day we saw the colourful bacteria growing on the plates. Success!
Dr. Pahara’s activity was the highlight of the camp. The students were doing real-life science with trial and error, and in a matter of just three days they were able to see their living results – something that none of them had done before.

The students were beaming with happiness when they saw their results. The impact it had on the students became even more apparent when Dr. Pahara’s activity won 1st place in the students’ evaluation bumping, for the first year ever, an activity at a very well-known theme park in California to 2nd place.

Denisse A. Fernandez is the Director of the Summer Science Program for the Institute  of the Americas a non-profit organization on the University of California San Diego, campus in La Jolla, CA.

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