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Shedding image of mad scientist ...

By Linda White
Special to The Sun


Their backgrounds are as varied as the world of science itself. One's an astrophysicist and another a zoologist. Others are horticulturalists, ecologists, chemists, mechanical engineers, nurses and firefighters. One thing they share is a keen interest in dispelling the image of the mad scientist.
680 News meteorologist Jill Taylor teaches (from left) Abbey and Jacob Jurgeneit and Tori Ruck about weather with some fun experiments in Durham's Scientists in School program.


Scientists in School

As Scientists in School (SiS), they have plenty of opportunities to do just that. "In the five years I've been with the program, I've noticed a shift," says recruiter Carolyn Edison (and no, having the perfect surname is not a prerequisite to working with SiS.)

"When I arrived, children used to ask me where the scientist was because they were expecting a man. When I asked them what a scientist looked like, it was interesting to hear if they described a scientist as a 'he.' If we hear that, we immediately refute it. I let them know that there have been scientists ever since they started to wonder about the world around us."

About 90% of SiS presenters are women, primarily because it's part time. "The No. 1 attraction is its flexibility," Edison says. "You book your presentations when you want, within teacher guidelines. You typically know your schedule by the end of October and have summer and school holidays off.

"Our scientists come out of classrooms flying because the children love the program. We often have children ask for our autographs. We turn around and ask them for their autographs, because they're scientists too."

Jill Taylor, a meteorologist with 680 News, began working with SiS after volunteering for a session in her daughter's class. She now presents "Weather Watch" for Grade 5 students and "I Can Be a Scientist" for kindergarteners in Durham. "You never stop learning about the weather. My grandfather was a meteorologist and I started learning about the weather when I was three. I remember I used to love watching the clouds.
SiS presenter Lisa Markoff brings the program into a Durham school to encourage students to consider a future in science.


"I wish they had something like this program when I was little. When children can play with things and learn, it's such a valuable experience," Taylor says. "It's especially important for little girls to get interested in science. I hear girls in Grade 5 saying they can't do math or science and I want them to know they can."

Encouraging students to consider a future in science has never been more important, says SiS executive director Cindy Adams. "By 2010, we will have a shortage of people in natural science and engineering," she says. "That's not good for Canada in terms of being among the top countries in the world in research and development."

U of T study

SiS is currently conducting an impact study with the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. It's designed to determine whether students' attitudes toward science are changing and if SiS and hands-on learning has impacted their perception and understanding of a topic.
QUICK FACTS
  • Scientists in School (SiS) was initiated in 1989 by the Ajax-Pickering chapter of the Canadian Federation of University Women in conjunction with the Durham District School Board. A group of eight presenters visited 40 classrooms that year.
  • It has grown from a grassroots organization to one of the country's largest science outreach programs. Last year, nearly 300 presenters visited 14,000 elementary classrooms, reaching 375,000 students.
  • SiS has expanded to Halton, Peel, Toronto, York, Guelph, Ottawa andKitchener-Waterloo. It is currently recruiting scientists in all areas except Durham.
    Visit www.scientistsinschool.ca to learn more.


  • "You don't know how many switches you're flicking when you're working with students," says Adams.

    "We have lots of anecdotal evidence that they become more excited about science and technology. A Grade 4 boy called the office after hearing on the radio that a train in Japan was going faster because it had a north and south pole. He wanted to make sure the scientist who had visited his class to talk about magnets the year before knew about it. That's just one of many examples."

    SiS was incorporated in 1998 and remains a non-profit, charitable organization based in Ajax. Corporate sponsors such as Toyota, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and TD's Friends of the Environment Foundation have been key to expansion.

    Along the way, it has chalked up awards such as the Michael Smith Award for Excellence in Science Education in 2001, named after the Canadian Nobel Laureate.

    "The greatest indication that the program is valuable is that it is growing at 20 to 30% a year without any advertising," Adams says. "It's been all word of mouth."



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