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All Science Challenge event conveys students' love of science

LET'S TALK SCIENCE: Volunteer students from UTSC made up the biggest group of volunteers at the All Science Challenge held at St. George campus on May 31. Children from across the GTA came for the event that tested their skills. (Photo courtesy of Catherine Febria.)

by Catherine Febria

Volunteer students from across all three campuses of the University of Toronto gathered recently to host 200 elementary school students in a nation-wide science competition. Volunteers conveyed their love of science at an event where teams of Grade 6, 7 and 8 elementary school students from across the Greater Toronto Area came ready to test their math, science and engineering skills.

The annual Let’s Talk Science All Science Challenge, hosted by all three chapters of Let’s Talk Science at U of T, took place at Hart House on the St. George campus on May 31. The elementary school teams had been preparing since January, while the Let’s Talk Science volunteers had been planning the event all year long.

Impressively, more than 35 volunteers from U of T Scarborough (UTSC) organized the extremely popular Science Funhouse alongside the main science competition. Designed to provide individual challenges for the student competitors, the Funhouse was clearly one of the highlights of the day, according to many participants.

Our UTSC volunteers played a large role in the success of the day. Sporting our eye-catching green T-shirts with UTSC emblazoned across the back, we took over the Hart House Quad. There we set up and staffed hands-on activity stations that covered various math, science and engineering principles in fun and engaging ways. The activities included: making colourful slime, launching rockets with Alka Seltzer, extracting DNA from bananas, loading DNA into gels, building bridges, racing through a math scavenger hunt, stripping pennies using electro-alchemy, creating lava lamps, and testing their knowledge through neuroscience “brain games”.

Student competitors said they found the Funhouse “so cool!” and “the best ever!” The children proudly showed off their completed UTSC Funhouse passports and large freezies, which they earned after completing a majority of the Funhouse stations. Their teachers were equally engaged and impressed, participating in the stations themselves, and many said they learned new ideas for protocols to take back to their home schools for future lesson plans. UTSC volunteers commented on the importance of outreach and how much it can enhance a young person’s understanding of science principles, as well as improving their confidence and communication skills.

"I love events like this. I went to them when I was a kid and they really made an impact on my decision to study science," Erin Brown, a UTSC graduate in biology and Funhouse volunteer, told the U of T Bulletin.

Comparatively, UTSC is a leader in science outreach programs for graduate students. The UTSC Office of the Vice-Principal, Research is one of the largest supporters of the Let’s Talk Science Partnership Program, funding many supplies for the Funhouse itself such as the newly acquired biotech kit -- complete with gel electrophoresis equipment and pipettors.

Let’s Talk Science is an award-winning, national charitable organization with chapters at most universities across Canada. With a mandate to help turn children and youth to science, and make science accessible to our community, keen UTSC science volunteers take their love of science on the road. At UTSC, graduate and undergraduate student volunteers partner with school teachers and community groups to deliver hands-on science activities in English and French throughout the Greater Toronto Area and in rural communities throughout Ontario.

At UTSC, Let’s Talk Science is also supported by the UTSC Centre for Teaching and Learning, the Office of the Vice-Dean of Graduate Programs and Education and the Department of Biology. Ongoing partnerships with the Office of Student Recruitment and Student Life have also helped to raise the profile of Let’s Talk Science at UTSC. Without these on-campus partnerships and support, our chapter would not be nearly as successful as it is today.

“Our students are superb ambassadors for science and for our campus, and they reach out to thousands of young people every year,” says Professor Malcolm Campbell, vice-principal, research. “Their enthusiasm for science is infectious and their creativity in putting together engaging activities sees them invited back time and again to visit schools and community groups. We’re incredibly proud that UTSC is home to the largest and most active chapter of Let’s Talk Science at U of T and indeed one of the most active university chapters in the region.”

The university, including UTSC, has committed to enhancing the graduate student experience. One way in which we do this is by connecting with the community, classrooms and the public about their research and the implications of understanding science, math and engineering in their everyday lives. Many graduate students have used Let’s Talk Science as a way to make their research more accessible and fun, and as a welcome break from their research while still engaging in science.

Volunteering with Let’s Talk Science at UTSC is more popular than ever. First established as a program for graduate students in 2003, Let’s Talk Science now has three paid coordinators and more than 140 volunteers. Let’s Talk Science has now also expanded to include undergraduate students in their senior years who are trained to do in-class mentorship with graduate students. Volunteers carry out hands-on science not only in the classroom but through community partnerships such as Loblaws cooking classes for kids and summer reading programs in public libraries. Undergraduates can also earn a Science Engagement course credit through a placement with Let’s Talk Science. In 2009-2010 alone, UTSC volunteers reached more than 2,400 youth, with hundreds more in summer programs. To date, the UTSC chapter is the largest of all three UofT campuses, and one of the largest in the GTA.

Looking forward, Let’s Talk Science at U of T is already planning next year’s competition. Plans are underway to host the annual competition at the UTSC campus in 2011. It will be a showcase event for science on this campus. Together with the volunteers, the new Let’s Talk Science Coordinators – Melissa Cheung, Kristen Silver and Sherri Thiele – are certainly ready for the challenge!

More information about the UTSC chapter of Let’s Talk Science can be found at:

Catherine Febria is a PhD candidate in biology at UTSC and a former Let’s Talk Science volunteer and site coordinator.

© University of Toronto Scarborough