The International Genetically Engineered Machine competition is a hidden gem — and not just because it is better known by the acronym iGEM. It’s a shining example of a range of good practices in teaching and learning: Among other things, it’s inquiry-led and student-centred; it allows small groups of participants to receive bespoke, personalised facilitation from world-leading academics; its activities take place outside a traditional classroom setting; it involves interdisciplinary, authentic tasks and outputs that require mastery of cutting-edge technology; and it integrates communication and outreach activities that can be highly impactful. Despite all these wonderful traits–and the fact that the University of Exeter’s iGEM teams have won multiple medals since they first started competing in 2012–not many students or staff are aware of this initiative or what it can teach us about what excellent education can look like at a research-intensive institution.
Dr Chloe Singleton, a Research Fellow in Biosciences, aimed to rectify this through her recent Academic Practice Network (APN) contribution, ‘Small group teaching throughout the iGEM competition‘. Dr Singleton is one of the lead academics responsible for supporting iGEM students; among other innovations, she is responsible for the Bootcamp Week that was introduced to help create the group cohesion and collaborative learning environment needed for a successful iGEM project. Singleton’s presentation gave APN attendees a sneak peak of the lecture she had prepared for an upcoming Society for Experimental Biology conference where she would be joining other bioscientists exploring innovative ways to teach STEMM students.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the number of honours the University’s iGEM teams have earned, the students who participate in this initiative tend to be passionate, dedicated, enthusiastic, and extremely bright. It therefore seemed almost a given that their academic mentors would display the same characteristics. Singleton’s devotion to the success of iGEM and the support of its participants is laudable and infectious. She has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about what teaching techniques work best in an unconventional learning experience like iGEM, as well as pondering how the successful elements of iGEM could be applied to other learning opportunities at the institution. This sort of analysis facilitates not innovation merely for the sake of innovation, but innovation for the sake of students. Singleton’s thoughtful approach is a perfect example of the critical reflection that we in the Academic Development team advocate not just in HEA fellowship applications, but on a daily basis for those involved in teaching and supporting learning.
iGEM alumni tend to graduate with excellent marks and, further, have a high rate of securing either a job or postgraduate study positions after leaving Exeter. Singleton recognises that her data don’t definitively show that iGEM is responsible for these successes, but she did point out that iGEM is particularly good at facilitating a range of transferable skills — notably those within the general categories of research, communication, and project management — that can not only help students in their academic endeavours, but also make them more desirable applicants on the job market. This begs the question of whether an iGEM-style experience could be offered up to a larger cohort of students–and, if it were, whether the scaled-up version would be as effective as the original.
Singleton and the iGEM team are interested in exploring these questions in the future. They also hope to figure out a way to raise the profile of iGEM across the institution — partly to increase applications from a broader range of disciplines, but also to ensure that future iGEM teams get the accolades they deserve and that this ‘hidden gem’ can properly shine.