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Talking science at the zoo this weekend

Olivia Cheng, who has a master in lung physiology from U of T and an undergraduate degree in cellular and molecular biology from UTSC, talks to kids at a previous Science Rendezvous event.

Ever wonder what it feels like to be a panda? 

You can find out at the Toronto Zoo Saturday, when UTSC student volunteers from Let’s Talk Science mount a series of demonstrations around the grounds as part of the national organization’s Science Rendezvous, involving 300 locations across Canada.

Pandas, notes UTSC site coordinator Bilal Ahmadi, don’t have a human-style thumb. So young visitors will be able to try on a special glove that mimics a panda’s paw, and then try picking up bamboo.

Faculty will also be on hand at the zoo to deliver short lectures. And there will be additional Science Rendezvous booths at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre, where people can see fun demonstrations relating to such athletic elements as buoyancy, pulse rate and energy transfer.

For Ahmadi and fellow site coordinators Julia Liu and Olivia Cheng, the annual Rendezvous is just one in a packed calendar of interactive events that the 500 student volunteers of Let’s Talk Science–UTSC mount throughout the year in schools, community centres, libraries and other locations, mainly in Scarborough.

“Our overall purpose is to get young people involved in science,” says Ahmadi. “There is science in everything you see. We want people to be science-literate and make informed decisions for the future.”

UTSC’s volunteers have produced giant bubbles, fired off rockets and – “always a big hit,” says Ahmadi – created oozing slime from white glue, borax and water, to the delight of audiences from kindergarten to high school age.

Ahmadi, a paid site coordinator for the last three years, studied cellular biology as an undergrad at UTSC and has just completed a U of T master’s degree in laboratory medicine and pathobiology. Although he once expected to attend a professional school such as medicine, his experience at Let’s Talk Science has turned him to communicating about science.

“It’s a path a lot of people don’t really know about,” he says. “I have just started a position with Science Ninjas, a Toronto startup where we will be targeting millennials instead of youth.”

Liu, who organizes up to 20 classroom and library events per month, is just finishing her BSc in cellular molecular biology at UTSC. She’s been involved with Let’s Talk Science for all four years of her undergrad. “It’s a passion of mine, as a biology student,” she says. “And I’ve always loved working with children.” She hopes to move on to pharmacy school or possibly medicine.

Cheng, who also did cellular molecular biology at UTSC and went on to complete a U of T master’s degree in lung physiology, is now employed at SickKids as a clinical research assistant. But she has continued to work with Let’s Talk Science, coordinating community events that at times take volunteers as far as Barrie.

“We tell our volunteers that this work helps you develop a critical mind and your presentation skills, and allows you to coordinate your own project,” she says. “For me, it’s also really fun and I’m constantly learning.”

Science Rendezvous runs from 10am to 3pm on Saturday.


© University of Toronto Scarborough