What do McGill students do when faced with a challenge? Rise to the occasion! This is exactly what happened when the 300 or so students and staff involved in science outreach suddenly found themselves in a new online world during the pandemic. Used to sharing their passion for science at in-person events such as classroom visits, public lectures and large festivals, this talented group switched gears to address the need for new, creative approaches to engaging with the public.
The results have been inspiring. They have included virtual classroom visits, trivia nights, story maps, a Physics Hackathon and workshops for science festivals such as Montreal’s Nuit Blanche and Quebec’s 24h de science.
Most recently, three initiatives have explored new multimedia avenues: a Detectives de dinosaures video featured in Quebec’s Eureka! festival; a TikTok introduction to CRISPR gene-editing technology; and virtual field trips, via Google Earth, to Montreal’s downtown, Mont-Royal and Mont Saint-Hilaire.
McGill’s science outreach programs deal with a wide range of topics, from the wonders of astronomy to the history embedded in the rocks on Earth. All of the outreach groups connect with schools, community organizations and the general public to make scientific knowledge more accessible and foster curiosity about science at large.
Today’s students are building on a strong McGill tradition. Public outreach has been an integral part of the Faculty of Science for over 125 years. In a regular year, the dedicated students and staff connect with tens of thousands of people.
The Faculty’s Office of Science Outreach, created in 2018, supports outreach groups in units such as Chemistry, Earth and Planetary Sciences, Physics, the Integrated Program in Neuroscience and the Redpath Museum, as well as external partners with McGill student members.
The Office helps McGill students strengthen their science communication and teaching skills and promotes critical thinking and science literacy. Science outreach is a valued part of the student experience in the Faculty, while providing high-quality science programming for the community.
Have you heard of CRISPR, the new molecular technology that makes it possible for scientists to precisely edit DNA? It’s complicated. But Chemistry Master’s student Ada McVean breaks it down into easily understood parts in this TikTok video, created through an internship with the Office of Science Outreach.
Since her days as an undergrad, Ada has also worked as a science communicator with McGill’s Office for Science and Society, and it has proven to be a perfect fit. "My undergraduate degree was a Bachelor of Science, but I had two majors: chemistry and gender, sexual diversity, feminist, and social justice studies. These two seemingly unrelated areas of study actually find their confluence in the work the OSS does,” she says. “Separating sense from nonsense, as our mandate states, requires not only knowing the relevant science on a topic, but also how it affects people and culture. After all, it's the Office for Science AND Society!"
Family Science Day
McGill students’ passion for sharing science with the public was also on full display at the recent McGill Bicentennial Family Science Day, an all-day community outreach event that drew an audience of over 200 and covered topics ranging from the moon’s craters to the physics of buoyancy.
The event, which formed part of both the 24 heures de science festival and McGill’s 200th anniversary celebrations, saw all the outreach groups from the Faculty of Science come together around a shared aim of fostering a love of science and an appreciation for how entwined it is in our everyday lives.
“Our goal isn’t to make sure the participants know exactly what research we do, but that they leave with a positive experience with science, knowing that it is something they can understand,” said Jessica Ford, the Chair of STEMM Diversity @ McGill and a PhD candidate in Biology at the Redpath Museum.
Science for all
Similarly, presenters from other participating groups spoke of their desire to create “a scientific mindset at a young age” and showcase “that a diversity of people thrive and belong in STEM.” Most activities were offered in both French and English. And while many presentations, such as “Ask McGill Scientists!” by Let’s Talk Science at McGill were aimed at people of all ages, certain events like “What is Neuroscience, anyway?” by BrainReach were designed specifically for kids aged 8 to 11.
For McGill students, learning how to gear scientific content towards children is one of the more rewarding aspects of science communication. Victoria Marie Glynn, a PhD student in the Redpath Museum and Department of Biology, presented her research in a talk entitled, “Corals – how they live and connect.” She adapted her explanations to the participants’ level of understanding, even if they didn’t know what a coral was.
To make the session as “inquiry driven” as possible, Glynn asked children in the audience “a series of open-ended and guided questions,” enabling them to work with her to determine why corals were animals -- not rocks or plants.
McGill students looking for ways to share their passion for science can check out Science Outreach for enriched, hands-on learning that combines formal studies with science communication and community engagement.
-- Ada McVean contributed to this article.