Scientists in School celebrates 25 years

Grade 1 students at St. Denis Catholic School cheer as Kathryn Allen, a presenter with Scientists in School, balances a record 21 hardcover books on a paper cylinder in a workshop all about structures. PHOTO: Andrew Hudson
Grade 1 students at St. Denis Catholic School cheer as Kathryn Allen, a presenter with Scientists in School, balances a record 21 hardcover books on a paper cylinder in a workshop all about structures.
PHOTO: Andrew Hudson

Proving yesterday’s news is more than today’s compost liner, last week Grade 1 students at St. Denis Catholic School were building furniture with nothing but tape and newspapers.

“Boys and girls, that test was way too easy,” said Kathryn Allen, a Scientists in School presenter, just after balancing a pile of hardcover books on the two newspaper stools that Ms. Lo and Ms. Mohan’s classes built on Tuesday.

“You know who is the bravest in the room?” Allen asked. “The teachers!”

To cheers from their six- and seven year-old students, Ms. Lo and Ms. Mohan did brave the stools, and the students were right – a cylinder is one sturdy shape.

For 25 years, Scientists in School has run kindergarten to Grade 8 workshops where Ontario students try everything from building model airplanes to inspecting owl pellets.

“We’re not just telling them information,” said Allen, who started presenting workshops six years ago.

“We are giving them some information, but they’re coming up with a lot of it themselves, through their discoveries.”

Started in 1989 by two Ajax scientist moms, Erica Bruce and Dr. Nancy Williams, Scientists in School aims to get elementary students doing hands-on science before they move up to high schools with labs and dedicated science teachers.

“If we do this during their formative years, when they get close to high school they are more likely to take science electives and take science classes in university or college, whether or not they go into a science career,” says Gale Davy, who handles development and communications for the non-profit charity.

Grade 1 students at St. Denis Catholic School build a tower out of straws to test the strength of structures with wide bases during a Scientists in School workshop on Oct. 29. PHOTO: Andrew Hudson
Grade 1 students at St. Denis Catholic School build a tower out of straws to test the strength of structures with wide bases during a Scientists in School workshop on Oct. 29.
PHOTO: Andrew Hudson

Scientists in the School has 375 presenters who last school year gave 22,000 workshops in Ontario and, for the first time, in Alberta.

Schools pay fees for the workshops, which are subsidized by government grants and sponsorships from Toyota Canada and the TD Friends of the Environment Foundation.

Asked about schools in low-income neighbourhoods that may not be able to raise the fees, Gale Davy, a development and communications officer, said the charity does offer complementary workshops.

But Scientists in School also works to keep its fees affordable, she said, noting that a fifth of last year’s workshops were hosted by schools in low-income neighbourhoods.

Davy said Scientists in School started with support from the Canadian Federation of University Women, and reaching out to girls was an original goal of the program. Three-quarters of the presenters are women.

In recent years, Davy said it seems as if expectations may be reversed, recalling one boy who asked, “Can boys be scientists too?”

Besides getting students excited about science Davy said the program tries to teach that there are no wrong answers in a good experiment.

“Even if you say, ‘I think this will happen,’ and something totally different happens, it doesn’t matter,” she said. “You didn’t get it wrong – you found something out through your experiment.”

“Kids are so afraid of being wrong, but we teach them that it’s the only way science can advance.”


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