Bringing Science to the Classes

Jenna Friedt (in blue) with camp kids from Sunshine Children's Centre
Saturday, April 18, 2015 - 7:11am
By Carla DeMarco
Let’s Talk Science at U of T Mississauga is a hub for youth engagement and science outreach.

From a very young age Jenna Friedt was fixated on science and couldn’t envision a life without it as an ambition.

However it wasn’t until a fortuitous encounter with a Let’s Talk Science branch at the University of Lethbridge during her undergraduate degree that set her on a path as a resolute and passionate advocate for science outreach for youth.

“My supervisor at the time helped to start the Let’s Talk Science site at U of L, and there was an activity coming up in May or June, but they had lost some of their regular volunteers for the summer,” recalls Friedt, currently a biological chemistry PhD student in Chemical and Physical Sciences at U of T Mississauga (UTM). “She needed someone to fill in and asked me, and I have been hooked ever since.”

Let’s Talk Science was founded in 1993 by Dr. Bonnie Schmidt, doing a PhD in Physiology at Western University at the time and was volunteering with local school kids to share her enthusiasm for and knowledge of science. The Let’s Talk Science initiative began and continues to thrive as a way for youth to learn and develop skills and for graduate students to participate in that mentoring. Currently using science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in their overall program, the Let’s Talk Science mission statement asserts that they aim to enable and inspire “youth to fulfill their potential and prepare for their future careers as citizens.” Now with some 40 chapters at participating institutions, Let’s Talk Science reaches over 3 million people across Canada.

It is apparent that the ambassadors for the Let’s Talk Science group at UTM carry that mission and enthusiasm to engage and empower youth with fun science activities.

The chapter at UTM currently includes 3 coordinators from Chemistry, Biology and Psychology, 52 active volunteers, and approximately 120 people in total on their participant list, with the group being a mix of undergraduate and graduate students.

Additionally their services are well received and in demand within the Peel region: Friedt says that their gigs to surrounding schools in the area were so plentiful this year, with at least one outing to a school every week, that there was no need to do extra promotion or soliciting of schools.

Over the past year they participated in the UTM Library’s Science Literacy Week, and their offsite visits included many grade-school tours, with the majority of the students in grades 2 to 7, engaging them with activities such as extracting DNA from fruit and making slime. When planning an event, the Let’s Talk Science coordinators get some input from teachers, who outline a timeframe for when they would like them to come to their class and what unit they are currently studying, and the group plans their activities accordingly.

Let's Talk Science crewThey also have an enduring relationship with the city of Mississauga, and have held events and hands-on displays in the Central Library, including a Superhero Science Day with superhero-themed activities in which the kids could partake. They had characters such as Spiderman, Flash, and Storm from X-men, and they tie in a science aspect for each of their superpowers, such as designing a spider web from tissue paper for Spiderman and testing which group devised the most resilient web. Friedt says they have the most fun coming up with ideas for the activities, and especially enjoy drawing on pop culture to get the kids engaged.

It is that spark Friedt gets from the kids, and their enthusiasm for science and learning, that help to further motivate her in her efforts to bring science to the classes. The level of engagement from the undergraduate volunteers, whom she describes as “awesome,” is also inspirational, and Friedt marvels at their ability to fit Let’s Talk Science into their rigid schedules.

She says that the mentoring of undergraduate students is a very rewarding aspect of the initiative for the coordinators as well. They try to make the most of the learning experience for the undergraduate volunteers, providing them with opportunities to network with industry, foster their leadership and time-management skills, and to enhance their communication abilities.

Friedt, who currently wrapped up the first year of her PhD in the McMillen Group, is pursing research that focuses on synthetic biology developments using yeast as a potential to screen blood for certain antibody markers, which hopefully leads to an application in diagnostics in developing countries. She is immersed in science and education and has her own work to pursue, but she is aware of the impact a program like Let’s Talk Science can have and is keen to find the time to make it a priority.

“If I had had someone come out to my high school or junior high school class to demonstrate how science can be fun, or how this particular experiment we just did in class could be used in these various careers, I would have been even more likely to have pursued science,” says Friedt. “And now that I’ve found Let’s Talk Science, science outreach has become my passion, and that’s where I want my career to lead me.”

 

To find out more about the Let’s Talk Science program at UTM, visit http://outreach.letstalkscience.ca/utm.  Upcoming events for the group include participating in the annual Science Rendezvous on May 9 with activities to be held at Mississauga’s Central Library, and the group will lead a session in the annual Bring our Children to Work Day on April 23.

 By Carla DeMarco