UVic Torch -- Autumn 2006
Autumn 2006,
Volume 27, Number 2

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Education Prof. Larry Yore: “It’s not (about) knowing the minutia of science. It’s understanding the big picture.”

Photography by HÉLÈNE CYR

Unfortunately, traditional teaching models aren’t doing a very good job of delivering this package. “We’ve got a whole group of kids that we’re not getting to,” says Yore. “Public schools and universities are doing very well for the top group, let’s say it’s 11 percent. And there’s probably 11 percent on the other end that we’re always going to struggle [to reach]. But that leaves 78 percent in the middle that have great potential, if we can just find some way to help them make the connections and see the light.”

Yore’s latest efforts to achieve this goal are through the Pacific Centre for Scientific and Technological Literacy (CRYSTAL), which he co-directs with faculty colleague Prof. Wolff-Michael Roth. The Pacific centre is one of five university-based hubs created in 2005 by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. The goal is to work with teachers, scientists and non-governmental organizations to offer more participatory science programs for K–12 students and to assess their effectiveness in raising the level of science and technology literacy and increasing post-secondary science enrolment.

One of the first schools to get on board was Strawberry Vale Elementary in Saanich, which already had a relationship with UVic’s Centre of Excellence in Teaching and Understanding Science (CETUS). After one year of working with CETUS alone and another with the combined forces of CETUS and CRYSTAL, Strawberry Vale vice-principal Calvin Parsons, MEd ’03, has nothing but praise for both.

“Our teachers were very good science teachers before,” says Parsons, “but by giving them time to focus on developing and enhancing their science lesson plans and giving them more resources, we’ve definitely enhanced the kids’ learning situation. I see that the kids are focused on science. They’re asking science questions. They’re ‘sciencing’ as (CETUS researcher) David Blades says. We were heavily into that before and it’s just given us more opportunities.” Such as having weather station installed on the school’s roof.

The school is part of the UVic School-based Weather Station Network developed by the UVic Climate Modelling Group along with local school districts. Students at Strawberry Vale and more than 70 other Vancouver Island schools track temperature, humidity, wind speed and other weather data. Strawberry Vale’s principal gives a weather report based on the station’s readings over the school PA system every morning.

Ultimately, Yore hopes the efforts of his group will decrease the prevalence of science illiteracy and “help people become fuller participants in the public debate about science, technology, society and environment.” Whether it’s global warming, clearcut logging or some other issue, “if we as citizens don’t understand the basic science and how science works, how are we ever going to make informed decisions?” he asks.

Across campus, in the Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology, retired Prof. Ed Ishiguro echoes Yore’s concerns, using one of the many recent rapid advancements in science as a case in point. “If members of the general public don’t understand what came out of the Human Genome Project,” Ishiguro wonders, “how are they going to make wise, rational decisions about how they manage their health?”

Ten years ago Ishiguro, a winner of this year’s Alumni Award for Excellence in Teaching, began reaching out to non-scientists. He now calls it his mission in life. “As professional scientists I think we have an obligation to bring science down to the level where everybody can understand it,” he says. “Not everybody can do this, but those that can should take this into the classroom and to the general public.” Creating and teaching a first year biochemistry course for non-science students is one way he has put his beliefs into action. Accepting frequent community speaking engagements, both as a member of the UVic Speakers Bureau and independently, is another.

Ishiguro also thinks the news media need to do a better job of reporting on science, an assessment that journalism Prof. Lynne van Luven agrees with. The problem, she says, is that since the 1980s there has been “a huge shrinkage” in attention to science news by the mainstream media and in the number of full-time science reporters, who are knowledgeable about, interested in and dedicated to science reporting. Instead, there’s more “soft” news—lifestyles and celebrities stories—and a lack of specialized coverage.

“People will cover three or four beats simultaneously, which of course means that they’re skimming over the top of everything. It’s very frustrating for committed reporters to have to do that. It’s disheartening, because you can’t really give the attention you want to give to any one of the beats, so you end up being trivial in almost all of them.”

Nevertheless, says van Luven, many UVic students are interested in science writing, especially environmental aspects. The Writing Department has responded by making science and environment one of the beats it emphasizes in second and third year reporting courses and by periodically offering focused science journalism courses. It also offers a professional writing minor for students majoring in other areas. “We actually encourage people to have an area of specialty and then train themselves to be professional writers so they can work in that area,” she explains. “So you can have the science behind you, but you can also write for the lay reader.”

Two UVic grads who exemplify this approach are David Garrison, BEng ’94, and Shannon Hunt, MA ’93, founders of two children’s science magazines: YES Mag, a decade-old, award-winning publication for nine to 14 year olds, and the recently launched KNOW, for ages six to nine. This November, the couple, who work side by side as publisher and editor respectively, will be jointly honoured with a Distinguished Young Alumni award from the UVic Alumni Association.

With its Brain Bumpers, do-at-home projects and scientist profiles, reading YES is a lot like going to science camp, so it’s not surprising that Science Venture is an enthusiastic promoter of the magazine and that many campers become subscribers. After all, a kid’s got to keep on top of things if she wants to win at Grossology next summer, right? (And if she does keep informed, there’s a good chance she’ll know that the false statement at the beginning of this story is B: a normal person actually passes gas around 14 times a day.)

Feed the Brain

Improve your science literacy with help from these online resources:

UVic Speakers Bureau

Science Venture

YES Mag—The Science Magazine for Adventurous Minds

The Crystal project

The UVic School-based Weather Station Network

Science With Kid Appeal | Science With Kid Appeal Con't

© 2006 UVic Communications | Last updated: Tue, 10/24/06

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