Make space, Hawking

- Tara Sharpe

The next generation of Marie Curies, Albert Einsteins and Stephen Hawkings is sitting in classrooms across the country right now, and University of Victoria researchers and students are hoping to keep inspiring these empirically minded kids with dynamic presentations about the wonders of scientific and engineering discoveries throughout the year.

Vancouver Island Regional Science Fair

Every year, the annual Vancouver Island Regional Science Fair (VIRSF) promotes science to students in our local school systems. It is organized by the Society for the Advancement of Young Scientists (SAYS), a volunteer non-profit group. Dr. Roswitha Marx of UVic Biology, a SAYS member and the VIRSF chair, helps coordinate the annual event with assistance from SAYS colleagues and other UVic faculty including fellow volunteer Dr. Verena Tunnicliffe, project director for VENUS coastal network, part of UVic’s Ocean Networks Canada Observatory.

Members of the Greater Victoria community along with UVic staff and students judge the projects by eager science enthusiasts from grades 4 through 12 who converge every spring on UVic from across Vancouver Island in the lead-up to a nation-wide annual science fair. Past VIRSF experiments have explored what makes a figure skater spin; whether probiotic market claims are accurate; if eye colour can affect peripheral vision; and what kind of toy is best for your cat. Last year, one local Grade 7 student even constructed a homemade hovercraft.

“These students are our future,” says Marx. “They’ll be our future scientists, and teachers, and physicians, and we want to give them every opportunity to engage in science, have fun doing it, maybe be mentored by scientists along the way, and interact with scientists at the fair. Not to mention that there are lots of prizes and awards to be won! Many participants come back year after year and get better and better.”

Hannah is a Grade 12 student at Esquimalt High School who has been entering projects in the VIRSF since she was in Grade 4. For the past three years, she made it all the way to the Canada Wide Science Fair—first in Ottawa in 2008, then Winnipeg, and last year Peterborough. She was the young scientist behind the project on the physics of a figure skater’s spin (a skater herself). She says the fair “has given me the chance to investigate my own scientific questions. It has got me to develop experiments and problem-solve in order to make my own conclusions. This is something that you can't learn from a textbook.

“I've also loved the experience of living at different universities across Canada and meeting all the students who have a likeminded passion for science as part of the science fair experience. Through my projects I have managed to figure out what interests me and what I might do with my life after high school.”

Let's Talk Science

The Let’s Talk Science outreach program has been in place at UVic for more than 15 years but gathered momentum, following a brief hiatus five years ago, after medical geneticist Dr. Jane Gair of the UVic Island Medical Program was appointed in 2006 as volunteer director of Let’s Talk Science at UVic. Gair first became involved in the national program while a graduate student at the University of British Columbia.

“It rejuvenated me,” says Gair. “As a very busy student, I started to wonder after a while how much impact my research was ever going to have. Then I joined the outreach program and visited classrooms at all-girls schools. The students weren’t sure what jobs were out there for them; they thought a scientist is a man with crazy hair in a lab coat with a beaker, like Einstein. It was so much fun to show them that science is everything and everywhere, and they began to realize it is ‘very cool’! The program is definitely a two-way street.”

Let’s Talk Science is a national award-winning organization that supports educators in teaching science to children and youth. More than 2,200 volunteers deliver exciting “hands-on, minds-on” science to more than 110,000 children and youth each year.

“Many youth realize that science is important for society but believe that it is not relevant to their own lives,” says Dr. Bonnie Schmidt, Let’s Talk Science President and Founder. “Let’s Talk Science volunteers are wonderful, realistic role models who debunk that myth and offer meaningful experiences for youth that underpin the importance of science and the value it offers for future careers.”

Let’s Talk Science coordinators are hired from within the UVic cohort of graduate students. The current coordinator is UVic alumna Cynthia Korpan, who works on campus as coordinator of the TA Training program in the Learning and Teaching Centre. Genevieve von Petzinger, a former coordinator and one of the program volunteers, is a graduate student (anthropology) in the Faculty of Social Sciences.

An anthropology alumna herself, Korpan began a program at UVic six years ago called Let's Talk Anthropology, modeled on the Let’s Talk Science outreach program. Due to her current work at UVic concerning professional development for graduate students, she recognizes the significant value the outreach program holds for all UVic students. She believes it “provides graduate students the opportunity to engage in outreach activities and refine their abilities to clearly explain scientific concepts to a public audience.”

In 2007, Gair invited the anthropology program to join Let’s Talk Science at UVic. Gair also initiated a branch called Let's Talk the Science of Medicine for medical students within the Let’s Talk Science program at UVic. “It has been a unique thing here at UVic and has allowed for many opportunities for medical students to get more involved in outreach,” says Gair.

Von Petzinger was already familiar with the public spotlight after being featured in national and international news after rocking anthropological research with her discovery of symbolic code in Ice Age cave art (see The Ring, March and April 2010). Her findings were published in New Scientist magazine, setting off the flurry of media coverage. This January, she flew to France to photograph a 15,000-year-old necklace made of deer teeth with geometric markings on them. She says, “One of the things I enjoy most about sharing my work with youth in the community is showing them that not all the cool research has been done yet, and if they can find something they feel passionately about, then it is worth going for it, just as I did!”

Von Petzinger ended her term as a coordinator at the end of February and continues to devote time to the program as a volunteer. For UVic graduate students interested in participating in this program, please contact Jane Gair at 250-472-5543 or by email at

Science Venture

Scientific surprises and fascinating answers also come from undergraduate students and the children themselves. Science Venture, the first program of its kind in BC, is a non-profit summer program for kids. The adventure at UVic started in 1991 and the team is composed of undergraduate students who work towards a common goal: to stimulate an excitement for engineering, science and technology in today's youth by providing high-quality, hands-on workshops, summer camp programs, in-school workshops and community events for children from 5 to 18 years of age.

Year of Science in BC

This is also the Year of Science in BC. In September 2010, to inspire young minds across the province and foster a culture of research and innovation, the BC government proclaimed the 2010-2011 school year as the Year of Science.

Year of Science in BC is a major cross-government initiative and its goal is to engage British Columbians, particularly young people, in science by showcasing how science works, who scientists are, the kinds of work they do, and why science matters in the everyday lives of British Columbians and the communities they live in. Learn more


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Keywords: education, youth, science, anthropology

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