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New centre helps science students see themselves as scientists

Professor Clare Hasenkampf (left) and UTSC student Nadia Ahmed

What is the difference between the student who unquestioningly writes down everything the professor says and the one who challenges the prof with questions? It’s not just rudeness -- the second student might be resisting easy answers, which means she is engaged in the learning process. Clare Hasenkampf would like to see more students become engaged in their learning, and soon, the Science Engagement Centre will help University of Toronto at Scarborough (UTSC) science students do just that.

Hasenkampf, associate professor and current chair of biology at UTSC, worked with Charles Dyer of astronomy, John Scherk of math and computer sciences, and Teresa Dawson of the teaching and learning centre, on the Science Engagement Centre, the project she affectionately calls SENG. “We’re going to SENG about science,” she jokes.

SENG will be a resource to math and science students looking to enhance their undergraduate experience beyond the usual course and lab work. They can do this in one of three ways: through research projects, in-lab mentoring, or by participating in a students-in-the-schools outreach program.

“I thought back to my own student experience and asked myself – when did I really get turned on to what I was doing?” says Hasenkampf. “Those first years were a bit of a blur. It wasn’t until I became a teaching assistant that I started to really get it.”

But undergraduate teaching assistant opportunities are limited and Hasenkampf wanted to see more students becoming engaged earlier in their university careers. When a graduate student mentioned that in hospital settings, students work in interdisciplinary teams to handle problems, it struck a chord. Now she is using the concept to extend research opportunities to undergraduate students, a goal highlighted in the university’s academic plan.

Research projects are usually a one-on-one affair, accessible to only the very top students, she explains, but there are still many very good students who have much to contribute to the field. “So we’ve come up with a model where students work as a team of maybe five or six to tackle a research problem.”

SENG will encourage researchers to hand off interesting questions to students, sometimes with as little background as a couple of research articles. The students will decide what question to ask, how to design the experiments and how much everything will cost. “The students learn how to become mental players in the projects,” says Hasenkampf.

SENG will also help place undergraduates in first and second year classes as in-lab mentors. Students who have completed the course fairly recently will be chosen to assist the current students.

“I’m hoping that if students know about the opportunity to become an in-lab mentor when they begin Introductory Biology, for example, they’ll be more motivated to come to class prepared and be good citizens in the lab,” says Hasenkampf.

Finally, plans are also in the works to bring together existing links with local schools and communities under the SENG umbrella. Groups of students will design learning modules to be presented to elementary or secondary students. The centre will help fulfil the university’s outreach goals, as outlined in Stepping Up, by bringing youngsters into the university and by going out into the community. The community will benefit by having UTSC students as a resource, and students will have opportunities to put their learning to the test.

“It may seem like a trivial thing to be speaking about science at a Grade Five level,” Hasenkampf says, “but it’s actually a challenge to boil everything down to the essentials. They have to learn to pick the appropriate language, and have a top-notch understanding of the concepts, before designing the modules.”

Right now, Hasenkampf and her team are finishing up a search for a co-ordinator. Pilot projects with about a dozen students will begin next term, with the full launch of SENG and its programs slated for the fall.

“Students may enter science engagement activities thinking they need something that’s going to give them an edge out in the world – a recommendation, a line on their résumés. But what they actually get out of it will be a lot more.”

© University of Toronto Scarborough