Students Promoting Science: How to take Science out of the Lab and into the Community

Author:  Snyder Crystal
Institution:  Biochemistry
Date:  September 2004

We're geeks, nerds, lab rats, people who can't get dates. We wear white lab coats and seek solitude in our laboratories, never happier than when we are working. We're geniuses who can't be bothered with idle conversation with mere mortals so unlike ourselves. Nothing kills a conversation faster than the admission that you are a scientist.

Academic assistants John Eng and Wayne Lippa launch the 2003 Lethbridge Regional Science Festival with a bang during the opening day Chemistry Magic Show at the University of Lethbridge. (Photo Courtesy: University of Lethbridge).

Academic assistants John Eng and Wayne Lippa launch the 2003 Lethbridge Regional Science Festival with a bang during the opening day Chemistry Magic Show at the University of Lethbridge. (Photo Courtesy: University of Lethbridge).

Thankfully, this couldn't be further from the truth and we don't see ourselves this way, but let's face it, we're hard people to relate to for some. You say you're a biochemist, and people just shrug and wonder what that means. The fruits of our efforts are often intangible and their applications years ahead. But fear not, fellow lab rats, science promotion has become a hot topic in recent years, and many students are getting involved earlier in their careers to bridge the gap between their laboratory (or office, for you theoretical people out there) and community. Wondering how you can get involved? Read on for a few ideas.

Making Science SPARKle.

When Owen Roberts, a journalist-turned-research-communications-officer at the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ontario, began involving undergraduates in science communication in 1987, there was no telling how it would work out.

"It was really initiated by the students," Roberts says of the Students Promoting Awareness of Research Knowledge (SPARK) program. Roberts, who was serving on the board of the student newspaper at the time, pursued the idea in response to student interest in science reporting. Fifteen years later, SPARK, touted as "the program that sells itself," has spread like wildfire to other campuses across Canada.

Students of all disciplines with an aptitude for science communication are recruited, paid, and trained to write stories based on research going on at their institutions. At the University of Guelph, senior students serve as editors for younger SPARK writers, and they work in a newsroom-like setting inside the University's Communications office. "They get to see how a newsroom works," Roberts adds, "They learn to work in a place that's not quiet."

Stories written by Guelph's team of SPARK writers are published in on-campus publications, such as the University's Research magazine, trade publications, and both local and national newspapers and magazines. And the benefits of SPARK training don't stop when students graduate. "People typically go on to communication jobs," Roberts says of the Guelph program.

In 1999, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), launched similar SPARK programs at 10 other universities, and it continues to provide funding and support to universities interested in bringing SPARK to their campuses. There are now more than 20 participating universities across Canada. "SPARK is playing a role in the appearance of science in the mass media," says Roberts, who adds that he never anticipated the popularity of the program at other universities.

"The biggest accolade for SPARK is that the students have proven that they can competently report science in a journalistic style," Roberts says.

Science with a Bang

It's the 1812 Overture like you've never heard it before. Cannon fire? No.gas-filled balloons exploding in time to the music, followed by roaring applause. Nope, it's not a failed circus rehearsal. You've stumbled into one of the most popular magic acts in town. But there's no Houdini in this house – here, it's all about chemistry.

The Chemistry Magic Show traditionally performed by academic assistants in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta is a familiar sight to most students at the U of L. It's not only performed during the first week of Introductory Chemistry labs to capture the interest of students, but also at various events and festivals throughout the city, carrying the department's "Science is Fun" philosophy to people of all ages outside of the academic community.

Wayne Lippa, an academic assistant in the Department, describes how he became involved in the show:

"I started off helping with a few shows at various schools throughout the city as well as the show that we do during the first week of Intro Chemistry labs, and eventually I started to do some shows by myself. I have many teacher friends and contacts in and around Lethbridge, and they started contacting me. Word's gotten out, so I get more and more teachers contacting me every year."

The shows feature everything from oscillating reactions, cool color changes, invisible ink, and unforgettable explosions, which are sure to be crowd pleasers. "The demonstrations show students a wide range of chemical reactions that they wouldn't normally get to see. School science labs aren't as well stocked with the necessary chemicals as we here at the university are," says Lippa.

"I believe that teachers like the shows because they try to do away with the public perception that chemistry is bad, hard, and not fun. We promote the idea that chemistry is fun." Lippa adds, "Students are constantly amazed by the color changes, heat emanations and gas evolutions that are a part of the various chemical reactions that we demonstrate. And, of course, everyone enjoys the ice cream we make at the end of the shows."

Student Ambassadors Take Science to the Community

For many students, the thought of being a scientist drums up tired stereotypical images of solitary men in white lab coats, which hardly seems inspiring, even for students with an interest in science. For some, it's not until we find a teacher to pique our interest or we get involved in science at university that we come to understand the opportunities that a scientific career has to offer.

At the University of Alberta, graduate students are helping local high school students get a head start on these opportunities through their award-winning Outreach program administered by the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research.

Local high school students are teamed up with graduate students and faculty members from the U of A, and get hands-on experience in a particular discipline, allowing them to explore the diverse options a career in science has to offer.

"The goal is to connect graduate students with the community so that they could interact and share their knowledge and experiences," explains Renee Polziehn, Outreach Program Coordinator.

The program started in 1998 with two schools. Today, more than 200 schools and institutions have enlisted the services of the Outreach Program. Over 500 graduates, undergraduates, faculty, staff and alumni at the U of A have acted as guest speakers, science fair judges, and mentors to more than 9000 youths in central Alberta.

Another initiative of the Outreach program is the online Enquiries Journal for high school students. The Enquiries Journal contains research articles written by high school students and reviewed by graduate students at the U of A.

The efforts of U of A's hard-working army of student volunteers seems to be paying off.

"We have the advantage of promoting science and technology by using presenters who are truly experts in their field of study, people who are doing research and can share many personal experiences with their audience," says Polziehn, "We are starting to see students begin programs at universities that are directly influenced by their mentorship experience." In 2003, the program received the Excellence in Science and Technology Public Awareness Prize from the Alberta Science and Technology Leadership Foundation.

"The students appear to be taking to heart a number of messages," says Polziehn, "they can achieve their goals if they apply themselves, they do not need to be a genius to succeed, scientists are real people that have other interests, and they should choose a career where they will be life-long learners."

So, the next time you get slapped with the "lab rat" stereotype in public, don't fret – find a way to help replace the stereotypical scientist image through shameless science promotion.

Further Information

U of A Outreach Program:

Enquiries Journal:

Delights of chemistry (recipes & animations)

Physics Demonstrations

Chemistry Demos

NSERC's SPARK program:

U of Guelph SPARK: