This is an important question and I feel grateful every time it comes up. It forces me to ponder anew the slippery yet ubiquitous nature of success.
I call success slippery because it depends on goals, aspirations and perspectives, and these can shift quite a bit. And I call it ubiquitous because I can’t think of any process or activity which, if they wanted to, people couldn’t describe in terms of success or failure. Therefore, to come up with a meaningful definition, one needs specifics about context, goals and aspirations.
The context here is iGEM High-School (iGEM HS). The goals and aspirations vary. They depend on the individual, their involvement with the competition and their personal views and values. This post reflects solely my own perspective as mentor of the Alberta (Canada) iGEM High-School teams.
So, what do I personally count as successful in iGEM HS? I consider successful a project that meets my goals and aspirations associated with iGEM. As I have two sets of goals in relation to iGEM, I aspire to two kinds of success. One goal is that the project provides students with a rich and authentic learning experience. This goal has nothing to do with the competition, and is met with success when the students’ main drive is to complete the project. When they show ownership of the project and invest every effort into carrying it forward and solving it. My other goal is that the project meets the criteria for winning an award. This goal is tied to the competition and its success depends on the judging criteria and how the judges interpret those criteria. It also depends on how the project measures against the other competitors.
In 2014 all five Alberta high-school teams were successful in meeting my first goal. With no prior experience with synthetic biology, nor any laboratory equipment or practical knowledge to start with, the Alberta teams came a very long way in just a few short months. They tackled the challenges and exigencies that come with an authentic synthetic biology project with enthusiasm and perseverance. And learned tons in the process. The CoBRA team (Cochrane) was also successful in meeting the competition goal as winner of the Best Presentation award. Did I hope that all Alberta teams would win awards? Naturally! Why else would they compete? But while carrying out a worthwhile project is largely controlled by the teams, winning a prize isn’t. Teams can neither control the strength of their competitors, nor the way judges evaluate them. They do not even have access to the judging criteria, which is questionable. In any case, success at the Jamboree is more of a gamble.
How can a team increase its chances to win at the Jamboree? Based on what I’ve seen this year, the competition is tough and a team can aspire to win only if it has made a significant investment toward achieving the first goal, i.e. toward owning and building a genuinely solid project. What does a solid project look like? The trend seems to be that award-winning iGEM HS projects demonstrate research at university level. Which is totally fine and to be expected given the high-stakes of the competition. But how feasible is it for high-school students to carry out university-level research and obtain positive results too within one iGEM season (January – June)? In my opinion, not very feasible.
To foster effectively both scientific research and education at high-school level, iGEM must change its model. A better model would be trying to foster synthetic biology education among high-schoolers prior to – instead of concomitant with – promoting the competition. That would give more high-school teams a chance to make a real contribution, which would raise the quality of the work presented at the Jamboree and ultimately its impact as a competition.
As Beverly Sills said, “There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.” Since the iGEM Jamboree is such a place, there cannot be shortcuts to it either.