Our Stories: Role modelling & the “science” of asking questions

2014-10-17

Through the Let’s Talk Science Outreach program, our volunteers act as role models for young people across the country by bringing science to their doorsteps and inspiring them to ask questions and try science, hands on.

Role Models - Let's Talk Science OutreachOne such volunteer is Nicole, a PhD student in zoology at the University of Toronto, who travelled almost 2,000 km with two other Outreach volunteers to the town of Kenora, Ontario, just east of the Manitoba border. The three graduate student scientists were there to lead hands-on/minds-on activities and presentations with students from two local high schools as part of the initiative to provide access to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) outreach for youth in rural, remote and First Nations Métis and Inuit (FNMI) communities.

One event that Nicole won’t soon forget was the talk she did with students that focused on careers in science. To open up the discussion with the Grade 9 class, she asked, “Who likes science?” No one said anything until one girl put up her hand and said “Not me. I hate science.” Unsure if this student was trying to be the class clown or looking for attention, Nicole asked her, “Well, why do you hate science?”

The answer caught Nicole by surprise. “I hate science because I’m dumb and I can’t pass it. I never know the right answer.”

“Wow,” Nicole thought to herself, “this girl needs to understand what science really is!” She went on to explain to the student and the rest of the class that science isn’t about knowing the right answer and that, in fact, a scientist’s key role is to constantly ask questions and then try to figure out how to find the answer.

“With this explanation, the student nodded and gave me the typical teenager response of ‘whatever’, which I took to mean that it was time to move on. I started talking about my PhD work – the study of blind fruit flies. As usual, the topic sparked a lively show of hands. I was already anticipating the first and most obvious question that students ask me: how do you know if fruit flies are blind?”

Nicole continued, “And who do you think asked that first question? The same girl who said she hated science! Throughout my talk of fruit flies and what it’s like being a graduate student, the girl consistently asked questions — often really good questions that stumped me.” The student’s interest was genuinely piqued as she asked things like, “What was the coolest experiment you ever did?” and “Are there experiments you haven’t done yet?”

At the end of the class presentation, Nicole pointed out to the student that she was really good at being a scientist, because she asked so many questions – questions that she had never been asked before and even questions she didn’t know the answer to. “The girl appeared somewhat embarrassed, but proud of herself at the same time.”

Having interacted with a “real scientist” provided a young Kenora girl and all of her classmates with a totally different view on what science could be. “Most importantly,” Nicole added, “it demonstrated how asking questions can lead to a unique and interesting career in a field that they thought was beyond their reach.”

At Let’s Talk Science, role models like Nicole bring STEM to life by sharing their passion and experiences. These volunteers inspire youth to think big, dream and make connections about where STEM can take them when they stay engaged. Volunteers like Nicole stay involved with outreach and continue to find ways to volunteer for Let’s Talk Science as alumni.

Supported by our donors, Let’s Talk Science is deeply committed to ensuring equitable access for all Canadian youth, especially rural, remote and northern communities and FNMI youth.