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With community outreach, science is for everyone

McGill takes science out of the classroom with its many outreach initiatives

Person holding flask for science demonstration

Growing up, Jessica Ford was told that digging in the mud to explore wildlife wasn’t for girls. That she wasn’t smart enough for science. That she would never fit in. Now, she’s working to complete a PhD in Herpetology at McGill, studying toads and all those other beautiful creepy crawlies that fascinated her as a child.

“A lot of people write themselves off as ‘I can’t do science’ as young as the age of 14, which is especially true with women and Black, Indigenous, and people of colour,” Ford says. “And a lot of that is because they can’t see themselves in those future roles. So, increasing representation is a huge goal for us.”

Science outreach can change our perceptions and open a world of possibilities we simply didn’t know about. It can make room for people not always offered a seat at the table. That’s one of the ways Ford is trying to shake things up in science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine (STEMM) with STEMM Diversity at McGill, the student-run initiative she co-founded in 2017.

That work can take many forms. STEMM Diversity started small and was originally meant to produce an educational poster. Now, more than five years later, the group boasts numerous workshops, a mentorship program, school activities, an online exhibit, and even a colouring book that invites kids — all kids! — to see themselves as the scientists of tomorrow.

Students performing a fiery chemistry demonstration

Jacky Farrell, Science Outreach Program Advisor for the Faculty of Science at McGill, echoes the need for diversity and visibility across outreach efforts. “We have a huge diversity of students at McGill coming from lots of different places and lots of different backgrounds,” she says. “I think that it is really special when a child can see themselves reflected in who is coming into the classroom.”

STEMM Diversity is just one of many science outreach initiatives at McGill, all designed to bring science to the public in one way or another.

Each year, the Department of Chemistry’s Outreach Group participates in Nuit Blanche, Montreal’s all-night city-wide arts and culture crawl. Attendees can enjoy family-friendly Chemistry demonstrations in French and English throughout the evening in the Otto Maass Chemistry Building downtown.

McGill’s Gault Nature Reserve offers members of the public a chance to immerse themselves in local flora and fauna, learning about biodiversity and ecological research while enjoying the outdoors. This year, they are beginning to work on programs to help elementary school teachers lead self-guided tours for their classes.

Elsewhere, McGill students from the Chemistry, TSI-Physics, and BrainReach outreach groups go into local elementary and high school classrooms to share their science through engaging, hands-on activities; the Redpath Museum offers access to natural history through its collection, tours, and events; and students throughout the University share their research with high school and CEGEP students through Hot Science, Cool Talks. This is just scratching the surface.

Community outreach can expand the scope of the University itself, acknowledging the role of the public as a collective of stakeholders. On the one hand, taxpayers fund research, so it’s in the University’s best interests to share findings and hear from the community about their concerns and needs.

But beyond that, keeping the public informed and included is entirely aligned with the University’s priorities. “Everything we do is for society,” says Alexander Wahba, an Academic Associate in the Department of Chemistry and the staff supervisor for the Chemistry Outreach Group. And everything society does involves science. Whether we want to understand our own diets or the complexities of the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists can offer amazing insights. Outreach can bridge that gap, Wahba argues, and let people know that knowledge is within their grasp. It can fight the effects of rampant misinformation and “chemophobia,” or the irrational fear of chemicals, while providing real answers outside the classroom. In short, it fosters engagement and awareness.

McGill’s Office for Science and Society has long sought to set the record straight regarding different matters, myth-busting popular falsehoods. A recent example was the Trottier Public Science Symposium, held by the OSS in September. With a focus on science in sport, the symposium hosted experts who could speak to the ways science and scientific language are “used and abused” for political, economic, and social ends.

Turning students into better educators creates a strong counterbalance to this kind of rampant junk science.

Joe Schwarcz and Dick Pound speaking at the Trottier Public Science Symposium

Joe Schwarcz and Dick Pound speaking at the Trottier Public Science Symposium

Bruce Lennox, a Professor of Chemistry and the Dean of Science, sees outreach as a vital part of educating the next generation of scientists. “They become the ambassadors of the thing called science, and that requires a framework, it requires a lot of responsibility,” he says of McGill science students. In other words, outreach isn’t just the purview of student clubs and volunteering initiatives; it’s part of becoming a scientist. It’s part of why science matters. “We're completely isolated from society if we don't give our students these experiences that become skills and frameworks and guidance,” he says.

“The biggest challenge students have is to actually speak in metaphors and analogies — you know, the tools that we communicate with,” he adds, pointing to the potential gaps when scientists aren’t trained to speak to the public. “I say to my students all the time, start at the dinner table at home, and if people get up and leave because you're telling them that it's an SN2 reaction and not an SN1 reaction, there's a message in that.”

To give McGill Science students the right tools to overcome these kinds of barriers, the Faculty provides evidence-based, dedicated training through the Office of Science Outreach on how to effectively deliver science outreach to K-11 students. “If we're going to have McGill students go out into schools and classrooms, teachers expect that our students will know how to effectively engage their students in science,” says Jacky Farrell. “I think it's also important for our students to develop their own teaching style. I think this is a huge part of it, because even if they do not become teachers at a university or school, we're always teaching each other in different ways.”

Farrell’s position within the Faculty of Science is a testament to how much of a priority Science outreach is. Few universities have entrusted outreach to a full-time staff member. Farrell’s dedicated role allows her to oversee outreach while creating a unified vision as opposed to taking a piecemeal approach. The Office of Science Outreach serves as the central hub for the Faculty’s outreach strategies and initiatives for sharing science with the public.

Outreach costs money, of course. Lennox and Farrell draw from departmental and donor funds for much of their work. The work of students and staff is largely voluntary, but travel, equipment, and other fees add up quickly.

“The Office of Science Outreach exists because of funding from donors,” says Farrell. “We're extremely thankful for that.”