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SPARKling wit, engaging prose
Keyboards at the ready, science dictionaries by their side, the latest group of writing talents on campus are keen to set sparks flying. Starting this year the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) is sponsoring a SPARK program at McGill.
SPARK (Students Promoting Awareness of Research Know-ledge) was launched at 10 universities across Canada in 1999, and is spreading like sparks in a campfire. Students cut their journalistic teeth in SPARK programs writing about NSERC-funded projects at their university.
Linda Cooper, associate director of the Centre for the Study and Teaching of Writing, is guiding McGill's SPARK team, which is supported by the Faculty of Education, the Vice-Principal (Research) Office and the University Relations Office. Her previous graduate-level Science Writing and Publishing course dovetailed neatly into setting up weekly non-credit tutorials to help SPARKers write clearly and vibrantly about science so it can be understood by an intelligent lay audience.
Ten students, most of them in sciences, meet once a week to discuss what makes a good science story, talk about their articles-in-progress, and give each other tips and feedback. The students interview NSERC researchers from various fields, write up the articles and try to get published in the popular press.
SPARKer Jesse Shapiro's background is in biology and the history and philosophy of science. He was toying with doing science writing, and the SPARK program was the perfect opportunity.
Shapiro says he's "fascinated by the process of science -- the people involved, the ideas, the resulting technologies." Although he enjoys reading good-quality popular science articles, he finds those in most newspapers disappointing. "I would like to convey information in a way that is engaging, but not sensationalist," he says.
Ian Popple, another SPARK writer, says, "I have always wanted to work in a career that allows me to combine two of my favourite interests -- learning and explaining science." While doing marine research in Barbados with McGill, Popple found that many people there were suspicious of the researchers' work. So he took up his pen to explain in local newspapers what his team was doing and how their research aimed to benefit the habitat. "The tension eased and people genuinely started showing interest," he said.
Popple believes that people's confusion and distrust of science stems from inadequate publicizing. "The tendency for scientists to remain anonymous (and be seen as impartial or neutral) has given science a somewhat faceless and cold reputation, increasing the divide that separates science and many other aspects of our culture."
Cooper loves working with the students. "They're an amazing group; they're smart, energetic and motivated... They come to each session with insights on writing about McGill research."
So keep an eye out for bright SPARKers lurking in your labs and corridors, and definitely watch for their stories in the Reporter and other media.