by Meredith Hanel
Learning and play are two sides of the same coin for kids who get a classroom visit from Let’s Talk Science (LTS), a free of charge, national science outreach program. Besides fun, undergraduate and graduate students, who volunteer with LTS, want kids to take away new knowledge and a love for science. LTS volunteers take away their own benefits from the experience too. For example, being routinely bombarded by kid questions teaches them to think about and explain science more clearly, something that helps them in their own science careers.
Science Odyssey is a 10 day Canada wide celebration of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) established by Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) to foster a strong science culture. For Science Odyssey 2017, Science Writers and Communicators of Canada (SWCC) connected me with the McMaster University LTS team and I joined them in bringing some of their hands-on/minds-on workshops to young students. Here I’ll give you the highlights of what we did and some of the things LTS volunteers told me they like about working with children and youth.
For grade ones and twos at Beverley Central School in Troy Ontario, we made science relevant to their world at the playground by discussing how familiar playground equipment like slides, teeter-totters and roundabouts are simple machines that can move them and their friends up and down and around. Then they got to build their own miniature playground equipment.
Kids love animals and we had no trouble getting them to explore and discuss animal adaptations in the arctic. They got to try on a lard-filled mitt and dip their hand in cold water to feel how blubber keeps animals warm.
For the grade 2/3 lesson on friction we had fun imagining being in a room with no friction whatsoever which the students concluded would be fun but dangerous! Students got to measure the ability of an object to slide along various types of surfaces. Kids LOVE being asked what they think will happen and the freedom in doing experiments to see for themselves what will happen rather then just being told.
I especially enjoyed the Dynamic Dinosaurs presentation for Homeschoolers on Campus, because I got to bring my five-year-old son along. Everyone got the idea that digging for dinosaur bones would require patience as they simulated the experience by carefully digging out chocolate chips out of cookies with only a pair of toothpicks. They touched real fossils, made their own take-home fossils and then acted like dinosaurs in a huge dinosaur scene that ended with a dramatic asteroid hit that caused them to die and finally they turned into fossils themselves.
LTS Volunteer Shawn Hercules who is a Ph.D. student in the Biology Department at McMaster told me he loves talking to kids about dinosaurs. “I hope the children leave inspired to love science as much as I do. I want them to have fun while learning science as well”, says Hercules.
Both LTS presenters Shawn Hercules and Sawayra Owais, an M.Sc. student in neuroscience told me they get satisfaction from imparting science knowledge to young students. Sawayra says it feels great to be able to guide students through new topics. “It's really that idea and hope that kids will be excited about learning something new, and then want to share that knowledge with others, is what gets my gears going”, says Owais. One of the things that really makes her smile is when “students, often those of a younger age, ask you such extraordinary questions that you often wonder if you should be running your thesis experiment, or them”.
Shawn thinks that having children ask him questions he hasn’t thought about before makes him a more critical thinker. He adds that “Volunteering with LTS increases my ability to communicate really huge concepts into really small, digestible bits and pieces for various age levels.”
I see science culture in Canada growing both from the kids who experience LTS workshops, viewing science as approachable and fun, and from the University science students who volunteer with LTS. They will form a generation of STEM professionals, more willing and able to communicate with society.
There is a curious kid inside every scientist or science student and a scientist inside every kid who explores his or her world through play. When organizations like LTS and events like Science Odyssey bring these two groups together, it benefits us all.
Meredith is a science writer who once enjoyed life in the lab as a biomedical researcher. She blogs at BiologyBizarre and tweets @MeredithHanel