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When Scientists go to School

During the Vancouver Winter Olympics, Scientists in School did what any serious non-profit concerned about the quality of education would do: they held their own Olympiad as staff ran up and down the halls of their Ajax, Ontario, headquarters while other tenants of the building looked on.   

"We play a lot in the classroom," says Cindy Adams, Executive Director, "so we had to remember what play was all about." 

It's this fun and games attitude that has helped Scientists in School reach the success that it has.  Founded in 1989 by two women on behalf of the Ajax-Pickering branch of the Canadian Federation of University Women, the programme brings scientist-presenters into classes for half-day workshops where children learn how to conduct experiments and discuss their results with the help of parent volunteers. It has grown from covering 40 classrooms in Durham to over 21,000 in-class visits a year from junior kindergarten to grade 8 throughout the GTA, Ottawa, Guelph, Niagara and more. 

The programme, which is closely aligned with the Ontario Elementary Science and Technology curriculum, aims to develop scientific curiosity in children and connect what they study in the classroom to the real world and help foster generations of future innovators. It acts as an aide to elementary school teachers, the majority of whom do not have a post-secondary degree in science.  Workshops include topics like learning about the physics of sound through musical instruments, the role of groundwater in the Oak Ridges Moraine and how plants make oxygen, each geared to a different grade level. 

"If you bring in someone who is an aeronautical engineer or a biochemist and bring in over a thousand dollars of materials in kit and equipment, obviously you're able to create something for the children that won't easily happen in their own classroom," says Adams.

A grade six class may dissect an acorn to learn about its complicated ecosystem and how weevils drill holes into it to lay their eggs, which are followed by several species of moths who use the hole to do the same thing. 

"So you give the kids nutcrackers to crack them open and they started identifying the different species. It's quite remarkable what lights go off in their head and how they have a new respect for the environment." 

Adams is not only passionate about what Scientists in School does for children (she once carried out applied ecology research at the University of Toronto), she is equally proud that they received a business excellence award from the Ajax-Pickering Board of Trade last fall.  Not bad for a non-profit, charitable organization.

Of course, it does help that Scientists in School follows a social enterprise model.  They fund their work mostly through school user fees (80% in most areas) with the rest coming from donors including individuals, service groups and corporations like Toyota, TD Bank, RBC, Ontario Power Generation, as well as some from the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.  Presenters volunteer their time to make the kits they bring to the classes, help develop their workshops and take training, but are paid for their class time.

While this approach has allowed them to grow steadily from region to region, it does have some drawbacks. Although a 2006 OISE study conducted for Scientists in School (PDF)  showed that elementary schools with low Education Quality and Accountability (EQA) scores had even more positive increases in their students' interest in science and technology after their workshops than other schools, these are the ones least able to afford to participate since most enrichment programs are covered by parent council fundraising. Fortunately, the Scientists in School presenters started up a fund to help out in such cases, but they are only able to subsidize 250 classes a year as chosen by the participating school boards.

Cindy Adams admits that Scientists in School is still a work-in-progress, one that has grown from a small grassroots organization through word-of-mouth recommendations to its current size (long independent of the Canadian Federation of University Women), that includes much of South Ontario and its first out-of-province branch in Lethbridge, Alberta. But they still need more outreach for less affluent schools, First Nations communities and French language programming.

"Our vision is to grow the programme into a national organization where kids right across Canada can experience Scientists in School in every year of elementary school," says Adams. "Every year is very important because in grade 1 they might meet an entomologist; in grade 2, a botanist; in grade 3 they might meet an engineer, so that by the time they reach high school, they've been sparked by science and had those pathways open to them."

Adams calls this plan their Mount Everest and recognizes that significant funding is required to expand. Scientists in School hopes to raise $2-3 million so that appropriate scoping studies can take place to help develop culturally and locally relevant workshops as part of their expansion.

"My dream would be for a good fairy philanthropist to land on our doorstep," she says with a laugh. "If we can do what we did on our own, currently with a small federal government grant and with no provincial government support, imagine what could happen if we could find that help."

Most importantly, Adams says she knows that Scientists in School is on the right track. She frequently hears stories of university students who are now studying in a field like aeronautical engineering because of one of their workshops.

Even better are the calls she occasionally receives from children, like Ali, a grade 4 student who wanted to tell his "scientist" about some news he heard on the radio. Japan had tested a faster high-speed train system that used magnetic polarity to increase its speed. Ali had only learned about the topic eighteen months earlier when he was in grade 3. This is what makes Cindy Adams beam.  

Piali Roy is a Toronto-based freelance writer.
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