Making big ideas happen

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SWCC People’s Choice Award Winner – Canada’s Favourite Science Site: Let’s Talk Science

Malgosia Ip, for SWCC

Amy Cook was a graduate student at Western University when she and her colleague Mira Ray started a small not-for-profit organization called CRAM Science. They were both passionate about science outreach, but found that outreach activities typically missed the teenage demographic.

“Interest in science tends to wane for teens,” says Ray, so we wanted to do something that would connect their world with science and technology.”

The result was an online, interactive, popular science magazine for teens to engage with scientific content. With stories written by an army of graduate student volunteers, CRAM Science explored teen-relevant topics through a scientific lens.

But as Cook and Ray finished their stints at Western and took on other full-time roles – Cook as a Senior Policy Advisor at the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation and Ray as a consultant with McKinsey & Company – they needed to find a new home for CRAM Science.

“With full time jobs, we didn’t have the capacity to take it to the next level,” explains Cook, “but we wanted to ensure its longevity and continuity.”

During her time at Western, Cook was a site coordinator for Let’s Talk Science, a national charitable organization focused on education and outreach to support youth development. Let’s Talk Science was already well connected with the educator community, an area that Cook and Ray wanted CRAM Science to grow into. It was the perfect fit.

Ten years later, CRAM Science is CurioCity, part of the network of websites featured on Let’s Talk Science’s site, winner of the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada’s People’s Choice Award for Canada’s Favourite Science Site. With over one million page views last year from Canada alone, Let’s Talk Science is an important online resource for teachers, parents, and youth.

But this type of success story is nothing new for Let’s Talk Science, which despite being a national organization with 45 sites across Canada, is at its core made up of local volunteers and their ideas.

The founder and current president of Let’s Talk Science, Bonnie Schmidt, was in the third year of her PhD in physiology at Western University when she had the idea for a science outreach organization. The timing was right: the country was in a recession, and funding for the sciences had been hit hard. Never had it been more important to rally public support for research.

“At that time, there was really no such thing as University outreach,” says Schmidt. “If a teacher wanted to know something about research, they didn’t know who to call.”

Schmidt recruited graduate student volunteers who were then matched with elementary and high school teachers in the region to lead their students in hands-on science activities and share their research experiences. It was an easy and effective model for any University to implement, and what started out as a small outreach project soon grew to multiple sites and became what Let’s Talk Science is today.

Because of her own experience turning an emerging idea into a national, award winning organization, Schmidt makes sure that Let’s Talk Science consistently encourages the entrepreneurial spirit and supports the big dreams of its volunteers.

Each year, Let’s Talk Science hosts a national conference for all of its site coordinators. They meet, learn what’s new and exciting at each site, and decide the direction they want their own site to take. Amy Cook was inspired to create CRAM Science at one of these conferences, after a presentation on accessing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) through different forms of online and print media.

Paul Cassar, a graduate student at the University of Toronto, also left his site coordinator conference with the enthusiasm and motivation to do something big. He and his fellow graduate students, David Grant and Angela McDonald, were inspired to create a youth-oriented TED-style event about stem cells. With the support of Let’s Talk Science, Cassar, Grant, and McDonald created a program model and drafted a proposal for the Toronto District School Board.

The first StemCellTalks event, sponsored by the Stem Cell Network, ran in March 2010 at MaRS Discovery District in Toronto. High school students from across the city learned about stem cells from experts in the field, listened to debates, and participated in breakout sessions. The model was soon picked up by other Universities. In 2018, StemCellTalks events will run in Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton, Hamilton, London, Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver, and Guelph, and are expected to reach over 1000 high school students.

Pick any of the major Let’s Talk Science initiatives listed on their website and chances are, there’s a passionate group of graduate students behind it. Cassar says Let’s Talk Science is really “a platform for grad students,” where they can learn the skills they need for their future career path. For Cook, it cemented her interest in STEM outreach and education.

“[Let’s Talk Science] definitely influenced my career move outside of academia and shaped where I am today,” says Cook.

Cook is currently the Director of Knowledge Mobilization at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) and continues to build on the skills she acquired with Let’s Talk Science and CRAM Science.

Today, Let’s Talk Science, continues to grow, not just because of its enthusiastic volunteer base, but also because of the increasing awareness of the importance of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics education in schools – 70% of tomorrow’s jobs will require STEM. The Let’s Talk Science Canada 2067 initiative focuses on shaping the future of STEM learning for Kindergarten to Grade 12.

According to Bonnie Schmidt, the founder and president of Let’s Talk Science, “The world is changing. We want to show [youth] that they’ve got capacity – even if they have to work at it – and that there are so many opportunities.”

This applies not just to the elementary and high school kids served by Let’s Talk Science’s outreach programs, but also to its volunteer base of graduate and undergraduate students. That’s the secret to making big ideas happen.

The People’s Choice Award for Canada’s Favourite Blog was won by Body of Evidence. Read about it here>


This article was first published by Science Writers & Communicators of Canada, a partner in the 2017 People’s Choice Awards: Canada’s Favourite Science Online.

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