Student ambassadors promote science
By Lisa Buchanan
Exploring the particle physics of popcorn and the forces and geometry in hockey are just two ways student “science ambassadors” from the University of Saskatchewan are making science fun and relevant for young people in northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
Since 2007, the science ambassador program has paired senior undergraduate and graduate students from five U of S colleges with remote learning communities that have a high proportion of aboriginal students.
“Science is not in vogue among teens right now, so we have to work to attract the brightest young students to it,” U of S computer scientist Julita Vassileva said. Vassileva started the science ambassador program during her term as the NSERC/Cameco Chair for Women in Science and Engineering.
“People of aboriginal ancestry are the largest growing segment of the Canadian population,” Vassileva said. “Science, engineering, and health sciences have a lot to lose if the talent of such an important segment of the population remains underrepresented in continuing science education.”
The program is delivered through the U of S college of arts and science under the leadership of vice-dean of science Peta Bonham-Smith and sponsored by Cameco, Areva, NSERC, the governments of Saskatchewan and Manitoba and several U of S colleges. To date, about 40 ambassadors have each spent six weeks providing practical, hands-on support for science teachers, both in the classroom and with extracurricular activities. Since its inception, the program has reached more than 3,000 students. “We designed science projects that make connections with the world they live in,” said Janell Healey, an environmental science student who was an ambassador in The Pas, Man., this year.
“The students really engaged with us and were asking for experiments they could do at home with their parents.” Teachers and school administrators are seeing results. Every community involved in the program has asked to have the ambassadors return.
“Students get hooked,” said Kathi McConnell-Hore, assistant principal at Margaret Barbour Collegiate in The Pas. “They see how their activities outside the classroom are connected to science concepts and that makes them want to see and do more.” Students who were in Grade 7 when the program started are now in high school, and McConnell-Hore has noticed a marked increase in enrolment in optional science courses, such as physics.
“For some students, the only university-educated person they know is their teacher and many don’t realize what courses they’ll need for the jobs they want,” Healey said. “It’s beneficial to get kids thinking about careers early so they can keep their options open by taking the right classes.”
Ambassadors gain valuable teaching experience and pass their ideas on to teachers and future ambassadors. They become immersed in their host communities and get involved with community events, such as Culture Days, Fishing Derbies, a Mother’s Day science fair and a grade nine graduation community feast.
The students, who come to the U of S from around the world, also bring aspects of their own cultures to the small, often isolated communities they visit.
“Our main message to students is to continue to be curious about the world around them and to ask questions,” Healey said.
Lisa Buchanan is a graduate student intern in the U of S Office of Research Communications.
This article first ran as part of the 2012 Young Innovators series, an initiative of the U of S Research Communications office in partnership with the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.