Building with Biology: Multi-Site Public Engagement with Science – Synthetic Biology (Innovations in Development)

October 1st, 2014 - September 30th, 2017 | PROJECT

The aim of this project is to create conversations in science museums among scientists, engineers, and public audiences about an emerging research field, synthetic biology. Synthetic biology applies science and engineering to create new biological systems, and re-design existing biological systems, for useful purposes. This is an important new area of research and development that raises societal questions about potential benefits, costs, and risks. Conversations between researchers and public audiences will focus not only on what synthetic biology is and how research in the field is carried out, but also on the potential products, outcomes, and implications for society of this work. Researchers and publics will explore personal and societal values and priorities as well as desired research outcomes so that both groups can learn from each other. Public participants will benefit from knowing about this field of research, and researchers will benefit from hearing public perspectives directly from the public participants. This project will be led by the Museum of Science with partners at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center, the Science Museum of Minnesota, the Ithaca Sciencenter, and several other universities and science museums. It is funded by the Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program, which seeks to advance new approaches to, and evidence-based understanding of, the design and development of STEM learning in informal environments. This includes providing multiple pathways for broadening access to and engagement in STEM learning experiences, advancing innovative research on and assessment of STEM learning in informal environments, and developing understandings of deeper learning by participants. This project is aimed at pushing beyond traditional modes of communicating with public audiences rooted in "public understanding of science" modalities into the mechanisms and perspectives associated with "public engagement with science" (PES). The project will support informal educational institutions as facilitators of such PES activities through which mutual learning takes place among research experts and various publics. Formative evaluation will support the development of evaluation tools that practitioners can use themselves to measure impacts of public engagement activities on both scientist and public participants. Summative evaluation will measure the impacts of the project on informal science education practitioners and researchers participating in the development of the project. In the first year of the project, two kinds of engagement activities will be tested at eight pilot sites across the U.S. The first kind will be the focus of "showcase" events, in which researchers demonstrate and talk with museum visitors about the basics of synthetic biology and their research work. The second kind will be the focus of "forum" events in which the multi-directional conversations focus on societal implications and participants' priorities for maximizing the benefits of this new field while minimizing the risks. The work of the first year will inform development of a kit of public engagement materials that will support widespread public engagement with synthetic biology in the second year at up to 200 sites across the U.S. Successful practices and infrastructure developed by the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network to support NanoDays events will be use for this broad dissemination of public engagement in synthetic biology in year 2. When the project is complete a set of tools and guides will be provided online for developing, implementing, and evaluating engagement events that bring scientists and publics together, specifically about synthetic biology, but adaptable to other emerging research topics. The informal science education field will have a better understanding of how to get scientists, engineers, and publics to engage together in discussions about the societal implications of emerging technologies, and how to evaluate the quality of that engagement for both the researchers and the publics involved. The project will also provide a sense of informed public views on societal issues related to synthetic biology that emerge through a variety of public engagement activities that take place in science museums.

Project Website(s)

(no project website provided)

Project Products

Multi-Site Public Engagement with Science - Final External Evaluation Report
Poster - Multi-Site Public Engagement with Science – Synthetic Biology (The Building with Biology Project)
Public Engagement with Science A guide to creating conversations among publics and scientists for mutual learning and societal decision-making
Building with Biology Participant Impact Evaluation Report
Public Engagement with Science
2019 AISL PI Meeting Poster: Multi-Site Public Engagement with Science

Team Members

Larry Bell, Principal Investigator, Museum of Science, Boston
Elizabeth Kollmann, Co-Principal Investigator, Museum of Science, Boston
David Sittenfeld, Co-Principal Investigator, Museum of Science, Boston
Tiffany Lohwater, Co-Principal Investigator, American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)
Natalie Kuldell, Co-Principal Investigator, Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Funding Source: NSF
Funding Program: Systems and Synthetic Biology
Award Number: 1421179
Funding Amount: 2101572


Audience: General Public | Museum | ISE Professionals | Scientists
Discipline: Engineering | Life science | Technology
Resource Type: Project Descriptions
Environment Type: Community Outreach Programs | Museum and Science Center Programs | Professional Development | Conferences | Networks | Public Programs | Resource Centers and Networks