Thursday, 14 January 2016

Designer STEAM?

STEAM Co.A few stimulating exchanges on Twitter, recently with @ST3AMCo and @AyseBirselSeck reminded me how much I was influenced during my first year at Liverpool Life Science UTC by "design". Of course my ideas of design are personal and not professional, unlike those of Birsel and Seck! Nevertheless, the whole concept of design and creativity is nothing new in all areas of education and knowledge: I am going to focus on design in science, but will stray into other areas where the perception is that they seem to embody design culture more comfortably.

Let's begin with some definitions. As a noun, a "design" is a "plan or drawing produced to show the look and function or workings of a building, garment, or other object before it is made". When used as a verb, to design something is therefore to decide upon the look and functioning of (a building, garment, or other object), by making a detailed drawing of it. These definitions provide a reasonable starting point. It is also sometimes useful to look at the synonyms in common use for design. These include blueprint, scheme, outline, sketch and composition (you can work out the verbs!). Armed with these traditional definitions I want to explore the role of design in Science and to explore ways in which the principles of design can help in the teaching and pursuit of Science.

LEONARDO.JPGIf you ask 1000 adults to write down 5 all time greats of Science, Leonardo da Vinci will be right up there as one of the most common names. Leonardo (for short) was born in 1452 in Florence: one of the focal points for the transition from the "dark" ages to a period of enlightenment, which we refer to as the Renaissance (or re-birth). Leonardo's interests spanned the sciences, the arts and invention: some people argue he was not only the greatest artist to have lived, but also the greatest scientific mind and an inventor, way ahead of his time. So in short he has a pretty impressive CV, especially in the context of design and science: he is often labelled a polymath. Roll on almost exactly 500 years and we have a generation of scientists whose careers can be assessed in comparison (they will be typically 70 years old and will have largely "peaked", just like a sportsman or a musician: which in itself is another topic for discussion!. Let's take a look and see how well we (as a species) have been served by the passing of 500 years.

Carl Sagan
A cursory glance at the Nobel Prizewinners who have been honoured over the last 100 years (e.g. Watson and Crick) provides one level of insight. Those who have driven the translation of science into benefits for mankind, is another place to look (e.g. J. Craig Venter or Ken Murray). And then there are the great leaders or high profile individuals whose vision(s) have made a difference by inspiring and flushing out the talents of others (e.g. President Kennedy, Carl Sagan, David Attenborough). And of course, apart from these people, there are many many more that are currently anonymous, but who may continue to go unrecognised, or whose genius may only emerge many years after their death. No doubt, many of you will be upset by my choices, but that's normal! How much has design played in the achievements of say Watson and Crick, or how much has Watson and Crick's iconic double helix influenced designers, since their 1953 landmark discovery? How important was design in realising JFK's 1963 vision to put a "a man on the moon" in 1969? Or how big a role was design in the J. Craig Venter Institute's "creation" of Synthia, the first "synthetic life form to emerge from Synthetic Biology?

It was shortly after the second world war that we began to unlock the secrets of our genes. DNA was shown to provide the chemistry needed for the building all life forms. In 1953, Watson and Crick (not to mention a small number of less well known scientists, including Rosalind Franklin), published their double helical model for the structure of DNA. I now hear people from all walks of life throw the "acronym" DNA into conversation all of the time. "He's an awkward sod: it's in his DNA". "And when we find even the smallest trace of your skin, hair or blood: we'll get your DNA, and then we'll know for sure". "Oh, they are always shouting at kids; it's in their DNA". I could go on, and so could you! Roll on to the turn of this Century and at a press conference in the USA, Dr. Craig Venter announced that his organisation had taken a digital design approach to building the first artificial, life form: the small, but perfectly formed Synthia: a new mycobacterium (one of a family of bacteria that are the cause of Tuberculosis, or TB). 

When the lunar excursion module: the LEM, landed on the surface of the moon in 1969, I (like most of my contemporaries) were transfixed by a set of blurred black and white images of a sci-fi spaceship, from which the now famous Neil Armstrong gingerly stepped onto the lunar surface and announced that we (yes humans) had just taken " small step for man, one giant leap for mankind".

Eight years later, in a lecture theatre I was struck by the similarity in the structure of the bacteriophage T4 (RHS) on the projector screen. Here was an object that could only be viewed with the aid of a powerful electron microscope, and it was just like the LEM (LHS)! Agreed?

When I had to think about enriching the Science experience of students between the ages of 14 and 16, at the Life Sciences UTC in Liverpool; I made a conscious decision to incorporate the above ideas (as examples) into the Innovation Lab programme, to which I (with a 25% contribution from a good friend, Rob Rule) gave the name REAL: Research Enhanced, Active Learning (Rob put the A in REAL!). You can read all about REAL, here, but suffice to say, at the core of REAL activities are experiments: not necessarily incorporating test tubes and Bunsen burners (but see, straight away, both test tubes and Bunsen burners are iconic and timeless designs, that have remained unchanged for over 100 years!). The first thing a small team of students must do, is to grab a sheet of A3 paper and a pencil and brainstorm their way through their experimental plan (a synonym for design). They have to produce a practical "flow chart" that factors in their daily and weekly timetabling commitments and yet enables them to investigate a problem or produce a specific outcome. It may be an antibacterial extract from coconuts, or a sample of DNA for sequencing, or a pure protein that glows in the dark! This is the start of an experimental design.

Naturally, they face some constraints about the equipment they use, but if they need to use agarose gel electrophoresis  for the separation of small DNA molecules from large one, they have to sketch the apparatus, label it and explain to me why it does the job. And, with the help of an in house 3D printer, they can if they wish, design a better alternative. See the images below for a gallery of experimental equipment that have become "Genetic Engineering" Design Classics. And see here how students have designed and printed their own equipment at the UTC here.
From left to right above we have "the Gilson", which replaced the classic glass pipettes for accurately dispensing small volumes of liquids sucha s DNA samples. The "Eppendorf" a plastic tube holding up to 1.5ml liquid that can be sterilised (and is disposable), the bench-top centrifuge for separating soluble and insoluble samples, the Petri dish, now over 100 years old and the best way to isolate bacterial colonies and finally the conical flask, so practical for many experimental situations from liquid storage to bacterial culture. Oh, and I almost forgot, the lovable Bunsen burner, to heat solutions, sterilise pipettes and generally oil the wheels of experiments everywhere!

I hope you can see how design occurs in the context of planning an experiment; which I see as a very similar exercise to "story-boarding" in the film industry. The design of equipment for carrying out experiments fits the more conventional side of design used by engineers and inventors. I haven't discussed it here, but the look and feel of a web site or social media page, can have a significant impact on the frequency with which it is used. Sometimes you want stripped-down functionality, for example the Bioinformatics engine that is the BLAST page at NCBI. At other times you want a visually appealing search engine such as chromozoom. Finally, I believe that we need more professional input from thos who understand design principles to enrich education and with it, I am sure we will foster and nurture creativity, which is what I believe STEAM is all about and what we all want!

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