Bringing quality biology education to every child equally

Hello everyone, as a followup to my previous post on education, I want to dive a little deeper for our Fellowship post.

ReaGent is an open biolab where anyone from any background can tinker with biology. We organize practical workshops for children from all backgrounds to get them in touch with biology in a fun way. We do this because the role of biological technologies will become increasingly bigger as we move towards a circular society. Education plays a fundamental role in allowing people to be a part of this process.

Why are we doing this? My personal motivation is best shown through a memory from my biotechnological engineering studies. We went on a company visit to Monsanto. At the time, I was not particularly aware of the dirty business they were in. We got to see the production facility, water treatment installations and large glyphosate tanks, which are all used to produce Roundup. During the luxurious lunch, which Monsanto employees also attended, a fellow student whispered to me: “how can they sleep at night, considering they work for such a questionable company?”. That was the only thing that I heard about the issue from anyone at school, both teachers or students. I didn’t (now to my shame) know anything about Monsanto at the time and had to look it up myself afterwards. I was baffled and disgusted. What are we teaching our students?

Aside from the perspective we teach, relevance is important as well. I hated biology in high school. If you had told me I’d be a bioengineer someday, I would have laughed in disbelief. The content of biology class often remains descriptive (you learn about the parts of a plant cell), while higher education and jobs are all about application (you use these plant cells to grow something useful, like a building). A child that likes engineering, design and coding should consider studying biology. This is fundamental if we want enough people to develop sustainable technologies for the future.

ReaGent has been going for about a year. We’ve experimented with several ways to bring biology closer to society. We’ve had children work with enzymes, build their own microscope, extract DNA and much more. The coming year, we will expand to reach more children and this scale-up entails several challenges.

Cell division

As a first step, we have decided to continue the project under a new name: Ecoli. The DIY biolab in Ghent will stay as ReaGent, while Ecoli will provide biology education to children and underprivileged groups. A DIYbio space or biohackerspace and child education are not very compatible regarding administrative or legal aspects, like insurance and licenses. Another reason for the split is the different story we want to tell.

The story to inspire a citizen scientist or biohacker is different from the story to inspire a child. Moreover, DIYbio has had issues with public perception. We find it important that knowledge is spread equally and that everyone can participate in an open discussion. We would not like a distorted image to shape decisions and opinions of people, leading them to self-censor and potentially miss out on learning opportunities.

The creativity, mindset and ethics present in a DIYbio lab strengthen and form the way we educate. We feel like we get the benefits without the drawbacks if the DIY biolab and educational project are two separate entities.

Funding education in a fair way

The question that I posed in the initial post was on how to fund education outside of, but as an addition to, the traditional state-funded system.

Making a project like this financially sustainable is a challenge. The groups where we have our biggest impact, and thus create the most value, are also least capable of paying for it. We have set up a way to partially fund this by doing workshops in the classical school circuit. Our impact there is equally important and they can afford to pay (a little) for our services. It remains to be seen if we can sustain ourselves in the long term.

Chances are, we will have to find funds elsewhere –government or industry. Government is the obvious choice, since education falls under their responsibility. Though, as often with government, it would be naïve to count on funding. Additionally, it entails somewhat of an administrative burden (especially in Belgium and the EU) and it’s a slow process.

So, do we want to cooperate with big biotech companies? How will this affect what we want to achieve with Ecoli? Do we risk that public opinion, or opinions of parents, ultimately influences what a child learns? Biotech has plenty of shortcomings –funding and market mechanisms, ethicalecological and the list goes on. But it’s a technology, a tool that can be used for good and bad. The drawbacks that I mentioned are effects of the way it is used and not inherent to the technology. If we are scared of biotech, it is because we are scared of ourselves, and rightfully so.

We still have the option of telling a nuanced story. Especially if we can highlight these issues during education, which is a rarity. My personal Monsanto experience is only one example.

Caring with science

More fundamentally, care is everyone’s responsibility in one way or another. Earlier this week, one of our team members went to visit an institute that accompanies people with a mental disability. He visited them to explain what we do and to offer them biology workshops for their audience, the responsible’s jaw dropped as she launched off in enthusiasm, pointing out all the ways we could cooperate. She said nobody ever thought of deeming their people worthy of science oriented workshops. Even if it’s just for entertainment, science or technology can be used for care. People have a tendency to underestimate capabilities of certain groups, like little kids or special needs people. On the other hand, there’s a tendency to overestimate the intelligence required to grasp or play with basic principles. The power lies in how it’s communicated.

This is only one of plenty of groups that don’t get equal chances for quality education. It is part of the mission of Ecoli to provide those groups the opportunity to learn and discover.

Beyond the tools

We are likely at the start of a similar revolution like the digital revolution. That means we have the chance to try and anticipate this time round; to try and prepare people; to embed values, like openness and inclusiveness, that make sure we don’t need to fix the problems of accessibility and literacy afterwards.

What we do can be considered an experiment and in many ways, it’s not necessarily about biology. We hope that, in addition to growing a basic biological literacy, we help to build a shift in attitude. When we watch global developments, it is clear that the biggest problems we face don’t require technological solutions. Even problems that are directly caused by a misuse of technology, like climate change, could be headed towards a solution by changing our attitude, especially when combined with more sustainable bio-based technologies. A change in behaviour is not likely to happen overnight, but if we can build institutions that promote caring, collaboration and trust, we might be on our way.

We are engaging with the Edgeryders community because we hope our actions can be part of a bigger solution. One where different actors work on improving their respective fields. By sharing experiences of our project with the Edgeryders community we hope we can grow more resilience for everyone.

We will be attending the workshop in Brussels on the 24th of September and would be delighted to meet you!

If you connect to our story, let us know! We love feedback and discussing the subject. Here’s some other questions that occupy our mind. Should this type of initiative stay an addition to the state-funded system? Is this form of bottom-up activism, independent of the government or in spite of it, ultimately a desirable strategy?

The production of this article was supported by Op3n Fellowships - an ongoing program for community contributors during May - November 2016.

You seem to have adaptability embedded already

Hey @WinniePoncelet! The fact that you could set up an education program in addition to your biohack space says a lot with respect to how open you keep your initiative. With questioning sources of funding, why do you guys feel the need to position yourselves so clearly? Do you have to choose how much anti something like government you are? Have you had opportunities to work with big biotech and passed? I’m curious because it looks like hacker values are there from ReaGent inception - openness, freedom, passion… so even if the model changes or mixes government funds with revenues through lab membership or classes you will still be operating under those things.

With Edgeryders we had always had some controversy: when we were under the Council of Europe shell it took more work to be credible to activists; when we became independent and taking on also private clients someone would come in and question that; when we go into a room and be too radical someone on the other side will cringe. It’s somewhat natural, as long as the work is aligned with our mission and speaks for itself.

Or: Is bioengineering these days  so controversial that you need to be firm about what you are willing / not willing to do and who you’re doing it for?

I would recommend you read a short piece about selling as a moral act by @lasindias and invite @Juanjo_Pina who is experienced in activist market production to give a piece of advice. In the past they were asking if the market is the “ultimate alternative to the enclosure of fresh ideas into the dependence of public money or a way for converting activist into established business people”?

Perhaps I phrased it wrong

Hey Noemi! Thanks for your reply. We don’t feel the need to position ourselves so clearly. To the contrary: we would like to cooperate with as many diverse actors as possible. Being anti anything is what we try to avoid. We’d rather build something better together than criticize the old.

However, I’ve noticed that in our field, making choices of who you work with and what you do, positions yourself clearly on a polarized spectrum no matter what. It’s not always the case surely, but something that is there nevertheless.

Thanks for sharing your experience. You’re right; if what we do is in allignment with the values then the results will speak for themselves. This dilemma of choosing may well just be fear of shutting certain doors. Other doors will open and as long as our moral compass works, we’ll get to where we want to be :)

Ah, I see

After all, choosing to make an investment in a grant application is different from making a sale, and requires different resource allocation and a strech anyhow - so of course choices at each time matter whether or not you are looking to position yourself or not.