Let’s Start Talking Science: the Importance of Science Outreach

What is a scientist?
If you ask a seven year old to draw a scientist, he will draw a man in a lab coat holding a frothing beaker with white hair standing on end. This hairstyle is otherwise known as the ‘stick your finger in the light socket look’ and my grade 10 biology teacher sported it. He also wore a long white lab coat and wandered the halls muttering to himself. Every graduate student has had at least one teacher like this. While these so-called mad scientists were memorable in terms of their behaviour, very few graduate students remember loving science as it was taught in the elementary and high school curriculum. For many graduate students, their love of science either came naturally at an early age when they were fascinated with living (and non-living) things or they simply excelled in high school science and found something in university that lured them into graduate school.

When I was in high school I had an innovative teacher who used interactive, hands-on experiments to teach us science. We didn’t just read, we dissected fruit fly salivary glands, built bridges out of sugar cubes, launched eggs with homemade parachutes, and we learned that everyday science could be fun. Why isn’t science always like this? Clearly, there are not enough teachers with the know-how and confidence to make science real for their students. However, there are thousands of graduate students who do interesting science everyday and are passionate about it. Now if only we could match up these graduate students with teachers and their classrooms.

Let’s start talking science
At the St. George, Mississauga, and Scarborough Campuses there is a graduate student run program called the Let’s Talk Science Partnership Program. Let’s Talk Science is a national organization that strives to improve science literacy through innovative educational programs, research, and advocacy. The Partnership Program pairs graduate students with elementary and high school teachers to bring fun, interactive, and relevant science into the classroom. Currently, the Partnership Program is active on 20 campuses from British Columbia to Newfoundland. What makes this program unique is the ongoing, one-on-one partnerships between graduate students and classroom teachers.

At the University of Toronto, there are 120 graduate students involved from 20 different departments. Our graduate student volunteers do a variety of things including: lab tours, mentoring students, judging science fair projects, participating in career panels, performing hands-on activities, and giving autographs (seriously, some students get star-struck when they have that much fun doing science – as one student said: “it’s so much fun, it’s like we’re not even doing science!”)

This past year we also successfully launched our Biotechnology Initiative which took gel electrophoresis (and 1800 aliquots of DNA!) into twenty-five Grade 12 classrooms. This activity complemented the molecular biology component of the curriculum, as students did a hands-on DNA electrophoresis activity where they were able to load samples onto a gel, followed up by a restriction mapping exercise. With generous donations from various companies, over 500 students in the GTA had access to the everyday science used in so many labs.

Why should the University of Toronto be involved in science outreach?
The University of Toronto is one of the leading research institutions in Canada and the world. In response to a growing need for basic scientific literacy in our day-to-day lives, a recent trend has emerged from many North American research institutions to develop better ties with the communities that support them. Schools are a logical place to make the greatest impact on public perceptions of scientific-based information, simply by presenting children with positive and fun demonstrations of scientific concepts. Unfortunately, due to budget constraints, and an ever-evolving curriculum which is teaching more and more complex ideas in science earlier and earlier, a great deal of pressure is placed on schools and teachers to produce consistently strong student performance with less resources. Furthermore, the majority of elementary teachers do not have science in their own educational backgrounds and can therefore feel apprehensive towards the subject matter.

Universities can bridge that gap. At the University of Toronto, various levels of administration, including the Office of the Vice-President – Research, Office of the Vice-President & Principal at UTM and UTSC, and Arts & Science, have recently made a commitment to invest in the expansion of the Partnership Program. The benefits of science outreach are enormous for both the university and their graduate students. Graduate students are a diverse group and they act as current and realistic role models giving a more accurate picture of who a scientist is. By teaching science to children, graduate students improve their teaching and presentation skills, an opportunity that is not always readily available to all students. More importantly, they are given the chance to improve their communication skills, gaining valuable experience in portraying their own area of specialization and the study of science in general. This promotes their research in the community, and results in a public with a better understanding of research.

What happens in the end? The university produces well-rounded and successful graduate students who have gained valuable experience, skills, and confidence through volunteerism. Inadvertently, the university also attracts keen and motivated future students. Science outreach improves science literacy in the community, leading to a scientifically literate society that values post-secondary education. Science outreach at the University of Toronto can lead the way to enhancing science curricula in our
school system, while promoting the value of its own activities within the community.

While there are a few science outreach opportunities at the University of Toronto, they often remain a well-kept secret, but if you hunt around a bit, you’re bound to find one that fits your interests. As a coordinator for the Let’s Talk Science Partnership Program at the St. George campus, I don’t expect all of the students we reach to become scientists one day, but I do hope to give them an appreciation of the everyday science that affects each and every one of them. Having a little fun never hurts either.

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