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Katriina Ilves on a school visit where she demonstrates scientific experiments - photo by Darin Dueck
Katriina Ilves on a school visit where she demonstrates scientific experiments - photo by Darin Dueck

UBC Reports | Vol. 53 | No. 4 | Apr. 5, 2007

Volunteers Foster Science Fun in B.C. Schools

By Brian Lin

Young scientists at UBC are donning their lab coats in elementary schools and showing kids how fun -- and rewarding -- science can be.

Established in 1996, the UBC Let’s Talk Science Partnership Program (LTS) matches UBC science students with elementary and high school teachers across B.C. to augment their curriculum with hands-on science experiments and one-on-one mentorship.

With more than 250 undergraduate and graduate student volunteers, the UBC program is the largest in Canada and last year reached a record 7,218 students in 70 B.C. schools.

“One of the biggest frustrations for any scientist is seeing scientific information mis-communicated or misrepresented,” says David Kent, a PhD candidate studying stem-cell biology and an LTS co-ordinator since 2004.

“The best way to tackle this problem is to educate youth, giving them the knowledge and tools necessary to make their own decisions.”

Some of the more extensive programs that LTS runs have volunteers devoting anywhere from two to 40 hours a week, and involve volunteer visits to schools from Vancouver’s eastside to rural communities as far away as Houston, B.C., to carry out hands-on science experiments.  For example, the Scientific Method and Research Training (SMaRT) Skills program runs in four East Vancouver schools taking Grade 6 and 7 students through exciting science experiments involving DNA extraction, electricity and magnetism, plant biology and chemistry magic shows.

“The students are so enthusiastic and inquisitive, they make all the hard work worthwhile,” says Bez Toosi, a fourth-year biology student who began volunteering two years ago.

“It forces me to relay what I have learned at the university level in a way that everyone can understand, and reinforces the idea that one should always look at the big picture.”

Toosi was inspired to pursue a career in science while attending high school in Squamish, B.C. “I was fortunate enough to have teachers who emphasized hands-on experiments and now I have the opportunity to do the same with the students.”

Toosi’s graduate student partner was fueled by the same desire to give back. Katriina Ilves, a zoology PhD candidate studying fish evolution, has been a volunteer for almost four years and was one of the original designers of the SMaRT modules, which teach children the basic protocols in research.

“It always amazes me how much -- of the material they pick up -- and how quickly,” says Ilves, who has also mentored students one-on-one in Science Fair projects. “They would give fellow students feedback on their project presentations and ask all the important questions.

“As research scientists we acquire so much expertise in our own areas that it’s easy to forget what it’s like to go through the process of learning the basics. Interacting with the students -- and their teachers -- really puts things into perspective for me.”

Thomas Craik, a Grade 6 teacher at Laura Secord Elementary School in East Vancouver, says LTS volunteers enrich the curriculum.

“The students get to hear from a real researcher, learn the concept of creating research questions and methodically testing and applying solutions,” says Craik, who has worked with Ilves since January.

“I can tell them about scientific method all day and do experiments with them and some kids will get it. But LTS reaches out to some of the other kids I don’t reach.”

“Scientists aren’t neutral players,” says Ilves. “So many important public policy decisions -- from stem-cell research to climate change -- rest at least in part on scientific data.”

“Whether the kids pursue a career in science or not, they’ll most certainly be affected by science,” says Kent. “Equipping them with the necessary tools and a critical mind will help them become better leaders of tomorrow.”

LTS will be holding its second annual All Science Challenge on May 25, 2007. 250 students in Grades 5-7 will participate in hands-on and academic challenges at UBC’s Vancouver campus. For more information, visit www.ubclts.com/AllScience.

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Last reviewed 05-Apr-2007

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