A Spotlight on Science Outreach

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By Dr. Alon Eisenstein
Technological innovation keeps on changing every aspect of our everyday experiences. Can you remember the time when there was no Internet or no cell phones? Devices like washing machines and microwave ovens have radically transformed our existence in freeing huge portions of our days. These technological revolutions were made possible by a solid understanding of materials and of natural phenomena. Because each enhancement to our living conditions seems like a small incremental improvement, we now take for granted the results of decades of scientific research in devices such as LCD monitors, ultrasound scanners and LED light bulbs.

Given how profound an impact science makes, how did we end up with kids who grow tired of studying it? Most children rarely get to make the connection between the science they learn in class with the real world they enjoy. It is only rarely that they get the opportunity to go to a science museum or a science camp, which are not affordable to all. Should we take some responsibility for taking all modern advances for granted, or for not publicizing the importance of scientific research in new products and new companies that shape our economy? As scientists, have we grown to believe that what we do is too complicated for lay people – or a child – to understand and that we should leave the science teaching to the science teachers in the classrooms?

For all these reasons, and more, we still need to showcase science to the public and explain its primordial importance through science outreach. Pueblo Science, a registered Ontario non-profit , was founded with the belief that delivering the value of science to both young and old, students and teachers, is best done through experimentation. I personally joined the organization in 2012 with a focus on rural communities, where education is often neglected due to a scarcity of resources. This is true for both developing and developed countries. Since the organization was created, three trips were made to the Philippines. In each trip, local science teachers gathered in three rural communities to host our travelling volunteers, a large number of whom are UofT alumni and graduate students. Our volunteers delivered a two-day workshop at each site to equip teachers with science experimentation activities for children. Through a clever design and choice of affordable and easily accessible materials, numerous teachers in rural Philippines can now perform science experiments with their students. It is estimated that 17,000 children will be impacted by Pueblo Science’s 2013 trip.

Pueblo Science’s effort at raising awareness about the importance of youth science education struck a chord with the ABS-CBN global Philippine TV channel . A recent broadcast featured a volunteer recruitment show held in the UofT’s Department of Chemistry on January 27th as well as Pueblo’s Hart House Family Sunday on January 19, which attracted more than 50 Toronto families. The Hart House event showcased Chemistry (red cabbage juice as pH indicator), Physics (disappearing glass vial in mineral oil due to refractive index matching), Biology (creating a life scale model of the internal organs of the human body) as well as Engineering (a climbing puppet using friction to produce upwards motion) experiments to elementary and pre-school kids.

Integrating science with a sports event has proven to be another effective strategy at engaging children in science. For example, Pueblo Science’s outreach program called “Science on Ice” has been gaining popularity at school day events in Ontario University Athletics hockey games. The events, in collaboration with the University of Toronto, Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, the Toronto school Boards (TDSB, TCSB) and Waterloo District School Board, gathered around seven thousand students for this year alone. Pueblo Science provided interactive science demo tables and intermission shows for the hockey matches. One of our explosive intermission shows recently got featured on CTV news-Kitchener.

Finally we also explored using art to ignite the kids’ interest in science through our “Painting with Science” program. The event was held in collaboration with the Department of Chemistry, Chemclub and the Institute for Optical Sciences (IOS) at UofT, during the Culture Days weekend in September 2013. For this event, we chose activities which provided participants the opportunity to learn science while being creative. Dye separation through chromatography, pH indicator changing colours, as well as holograms provided by the IOS, are just a few examples of what numerous GTA families enjoyed.

I would like to finish with words of gratitude. Many of our accomplishments in the past few years would not have happened without the support and assistance we have received from the Chemistry Department, the Institute for Optical Sciences, the Impact Centre and of course all the many wonderful volunteers who have helped to bring science out there. Our work is only beginning, and we invite you to support and join our fun activities!

Alon-Eisenstein-150x150About the Author
Alon Eisenstein is the Educational Programs Coordinator, of Pueblo Science and currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Toronto. Alon wrote this article for the Distillations publication in the Department of Chemistry at UofT and is also published in his blog.