Chemist breaks down food flavours with sidewalk science at the Kitchener Market

University of Waterloo chemistry instructor Leanne Racicot will be sharing the science behind the food we eat, using nothing more than a spot on the sidewalk and a piece of chalk.

Project uses nothing more than a spot on the sidewalk and a piece of chalk

This sidewalk science research was done by Rebecca Yardley of RCI Science. (Submitted by Kristen Vanstone)

Leanne Racicot has always loved science and loves sharing that passion with anyone who will listen. When she saw on social media that scientists had been sharing their research on sidewalks, she immediately knew she wanted to be involved.

The Royal Canadian Institute (RCI) of Science has invited scientists across the country to share their research with their neighbours, using nothing more than a spot on the sidewalk and a piece of chalk.

This weekend, Racicot will set up on a sidewalk outside the Kitchener Market, engaging the public on the flavours found in foods.

"I was envisioning a piece based on peppers," Racicot, a chemistry instructor at the University of Waterloo, told CBC News.

"There's a lot of compounds in pepper that give different flavours, so you can think like the nice kind of favour of black pepper ... or you can think of the spiciness of pepper that is given by capsaicin."

Racicot says she hopes to have the piece ready Friday night to catch the early morning market shoppers.

"The market usually starts early on Saturday morning, so … hopefully bystanders that are going to the market will see it and perhaps leave a question," she said.

"I plan on having a bucket of chalk available if people have questions about flavours in foods and the chemical makeup so that they can ask questions and then I'll go back and revisit the piece to add an answer."

University of Waterloo scientist Lianne Racicot displays one of her projects. (Submitted by Leanne Racicot)

Science literacy vital to bridging divide

RCI Science hopes the campaign will raise the profile of scientists across Canada, while encouraging them to have fun. 

Racicot said scientists have an important role to play in their communities, and their participation is even more critical now as the world deals with the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We've seen a fair bit of barriers in terms of managing the pandemic, especially in the United States, I think because of a lack of scientific literacy from the general public, in terms of some people still thinking that the pandemic is a hoax," she said.

That idea is at the core of why RCI science launched the sidewalk science campaign, says executive director Kirsten Vanstone. 

"We believe that science is vital to a strong society and right now I think that's very evident, and we're very pleased that Canadians have been supporting, listening to science to get us through this current pandemic situation," Vanstone told CBC News. 

Typically her group promotes science engagement at organized events so people who want to learn more about science can talk with scientists to learn about what they're doing in person.

That's not been possible since the COVID-19 pandemic so Vanstone and her colleagues have been finding new ways of engaging people without requiring everyone to be in the same room.

"So we thought [sidewalk science] might be a fun sort of physically distanced way of continuing our mission," said Vanstone.


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