Technology & Science

More science funding for schools key to our future: Bob McDonald

The non-profit organization Let’s Talk Science has received $12.5 million from the federal government for the next five years to extend its hands-on science activities to students and educators across the country. This is a big win, writes Bob McDonald.

Let’s Talk Science receives $12.5 million in federal funding for next five years

The increase in standardization, combined with a heavy curriculum load that leaves limited time for creativity or autonomy, can leave teachers feeling like assembly line workers, says educator Joel Westheimer. (iStock)

The national non-profit organization Let's Talk Science has received $12.5 million from the federal government for the next five years to extend its hands-on science activities to students and educators across the country.

This is a huge boost to an organization that began as a small series of school visits by volunteer university students in London, Ont., more than 20 years ago. (Disclosure: I was on the board of the organization in the early days.)

It was the brainchild of founder and President Dr. Bonnie Schmidt, who recognized that teachers do not usually have time to set up and perform a lot of science-based workshops during the busy school days.

Let's Talk Science volunteers showed up with their own equipment, engaged the students in fun activities to demonstrate principles of science and, more importantly, encouraged young people to get interested in science, technology, engineering and math, otherwise known as STEM.

Since then, the program has expanded nationally, reaching millions of students through a variety of programs, from kindergarten to grade 12, including training for many elementary school teachers who, in many cases, find themselves having to teach science without a science background. The organization also does original research on attitudes towards science among Canadian students and parents.

The program has even reached space. When Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield flew on the International Space Station recently, he carried with him a bubble dosimeter to measure the amount of radiation he was exposed to during his five- month flight.

Through cooperation with the Canadian Space Agency, thousands of identical dosimeters were distributed by Let's Talk Science to schools across the country, so students could compare the dosage they received on the ground during the same period.

Reaching more people

The new funding will allow Let's Talk Science to expand its programming to reach more young people, particularly those living in rural, remote and aboriginal communities outside the major city centres.

The funding will also increase the number of Let's Talk Science outreach sites at universities and colleges to almost 50 across the country, and expand the organization's capacity to reach French-speaking Canadian students in Quebec and across Canada.

Teachers are under increased pressure from larger class sizes and tight schedules that must fit science into a school day, along with all the other subjects and school activities. Many, at the elementary level, do not have a science background, and some are even intimidated by having to teach science.

Having ready-made science entertainment walk in the door and augment the curriculum is a huge help.

But is it enough?

A recent report by the Council of Canadian Academies found that early exposure to STEM is essential to building Canada's future economic prosperity. High-tech industries have found many students lacking in these skills and have had to reluctantly invest in training programs of their own.

This small investment in STEM comes at a time when funding for basic science is on the decline and federal scientists are still concerned about muzzling.

As we face an uncertain future, with greater numbers of people consuming more resources from a limited environment, a fundamental awareness of science is vital to both identify the problems and come up with innovative solutions. And it all begins with education.

About the Author

Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.