"Build Your Plasmid": The Game - Play to Teach

By Guest Blogger

Build Your Plasmid Boardgame

This guest post was contributed by Marco Straccia, an Associate Professor at University of Barcelona.

The challenge: Making courses on genetic manipulation more hands on

While teaching courses about gene therapy and genetic manipulation, I and other professors at the University of Barcelona wanted to develop strategies to make our classes more practical and hands-on. Students in these courses get plenty of theory in their lectures, but it can be difficult to determine how much information they’ve absorbed if they don’t get a chance apply it in an interactive setting.

The problem is…how can you make a “hands-on” lesson on genetic manipulation of human stem cells when students are not even allowed to manipulate prokaryotic cells? Especially, if you only have 4 hours and 35 students!

After a course coordination meeting with some other professors, I went home thinking about how to solve this problem. I didn’t want to face another group of sleepy students at 8 a.m. many of them focused more on social media or the phones hiding under their desks than listening to me.

When I got home, I saw my daughters playing with some cards and I had a quick flashback to time spent playing a card game called “Magic”. There were complicated rules that governed how this game was played. These rules restricted which cards could be played when and, depending upon who your challenger was, you might have to drastically alter your strategy. I realized that similar types of thinking go into developing gene therapy strategies for various diseases.

That’s when I thought, if it cannot be hands-on, it will be “brains-on”!

I know that even lectures should be “brains-on”, but as much as I try being compelling, interactive, and application-driven to boost curiosity, I have never experienced 100% student engagement. I figured, an engaging card game could help me get the engagement I wanted. I therefore started planning a game that would force my students to use concepts learned from previous lectures, articles and books. A game where they would use their logic and strategy skills to apply those concepts and understand how therapeutic strategies work.

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BUILD YOUR PLASMID is a game where you need to apply basic molecular biology, cell biology, microbiology, genetic engineering and strategic knowledge to solve a clinical disease case. As a teacher, you explain the game rules and then you let your students play. As your students play, you can observe, answer questions, and guide them to productive strategies while noting any gaps in their knowledge.

Practically speaking the format I decided on was to have two teams of 4 people face each other on a single chosen clinical disease case. Then, each team received a whole set of cards (Promoters, Inserts, Tags, Origins of Replication, Resistance gene and Selection Markers) and one “Transfer Plasmid” game board. Once they agreed on each element to use, they had to place the selected card on the board game.

They had 35 minutes to develop a strategy and build a transfer plasmid that could be used to genetically manipulate human stem cells. Then they had 10 minutes to expose their strategy, justifying each single element used to build the construct and explain why they selected a certain target cell population.

Who is the winner? Ultimately, society should be! This is a collaborative game, as it should be in real scientific practice, so it is based on a win-win strategy. After each team presented, all students had to pick the best strategy and propose a final gene therapy approach for the disease to be openly discussed with the class.

In this way, the students also had to practice transferable skills like team building, collaborative critical thinking, and communication among others. They additionally had to think creatively so as not to develop the most obvious strategy which  also could have been proposed by the opposing team.

In the end, the students had fun while applying most of the concepts required by the course and some were so enthusiastic that they took the cards and the board with them. My impression was that they had clearer ideas about gene therapy in the following lessons. And let me tell you more, they had brilliant ideas on how to solve many therapeutic and pre-clinical problems! Who knows, perhaps the ideas spurred by this “gamification” will lead to new cures for disease someday!

Accessing and modifying BUILD YOUR PLASMID

You can find rules, suggestions, and more details on how to play the game on the FRESCI blog. As I wrote in the blog post, BUILD YOUR PLASMID has been developed to teach gamma-retrovirus or lentivirus-based ex-vivo gene therapy’ strategies to undergraduates, however you may use it and modify it for non-commercial reuse. There should be ways to adapt the game to each a variety of subjects at many different education levels.

If you modify BUILD YOUR PLASMID or generate games like it, please freely share your projects with us! This exchange of ideas will help improve life science and biomedical education for future generations.

All suggestions, tips and critiques to improve the educational nature of this material are welcome and if you want to receive our modifiable powerpoint file, please feel free to contact us at: fre-sci@fre-sci.info

Marco StracciaMarco Straccia is currently an Associate Professor at University of Barcelona. He is also founder and consultant at FRESCI particularly interested in advanced in vitro models technology. Follow him on twitter @FRE_SCI.


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