Thursday July 24, 2014

Sparking their CurioCity

Let’s Talk Science takes aim at the engineers and geologists of the future
Let’s Talk Science Photo

Let’s Talk Science founder and president Bonnie Schmidt is hopeful that their CurioCity project will help students realize the value of math and science education. The early results are promising, as hundreds of people have already registered with the site.

The oil and gas industry is always in need of engineers and geologists.

That is why Let’s Talk Science sent a call out to the energy sector in early October to encourage scientists to contribute career profiles to their young website known as CurioCity. The portal, which is still waiting for its official launch in the middle of November, is designed to connect students from Grade 8 to Grade 12 to the science community to promote education and careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, also known as STEM.

“Teens seem to see science and technology as important for society, but not all that relevant for themselves,” said Let’s Talk Science founder and president Bonnie Schmidt, describing the inspiration for CurioCity and the career profile portion of the website.

“Research is showing that they’re actually dropping those maths and sciences in high school as soon as they can,” she continued.

“The majority of students who are graduating high school are actually not graduating with the prerequisites that they would need to continue on in postsecondary, whether it’s in college or in university.

“CurioCity is really our attempt to focus the teen audience on understanding the science and technology in their lives.”

Schmidt said that providing the contemporary context and discussing the current issues around science and technology is important to improving that understanding.

That underscores the value of participation by scientists like Jayne Simmons.

As a geophysicist and team lead of the petroleum data services team for ESG Solutions in Kingston, Ontario, the young Newfoundlander spends her days elbow deep in one of the most discussed concerns about the natural gas industry today: hydraulic fracturing and its potential for causing earthquakes.

“My company does microseismic monitoring for small earthquakes induced by hydraulic fracturing,” said Simmons.

Her original plan as a university math student was to become a teacher, but her minor in earth sciences soon led her to geophysics.

She was hooked.

“One of my friends said, ‘Hey, do this geophysics course. I think you’d really be interested in it.’ And from the very first course, I really loved it. I found it to be really interesting. And then I went on to do a double major in geophysics and math. And all my summer work experiences were really positive and just really fun,” said Simmons.

That summer work included conducting magnetic surveys and induced polarization surveys for a mineral exploration company in Newfoundland.

“It was a lot of camping, a lot of hiking and looking at data,” said Simmons. “And that was challenging and fun.”

Schmidt is hopeful that stories like Simmons’ will show young people that many of their myths and misconceptions about math and science aren’t reality.

“Let’s Talk Science has existed for twenty years,” said Schmidt. “CurioCity is our newest program. And we really are trying to tackle head-on those misconceptions.”

One of those misconceptions, according to Schmidt, is that science doesn’t play an important role in everyday life, which is interesting considering the notion that young people do recognize that science and technology are important for society.

The intriguing aspect of that situation is that many young people apparently fail to connect the importance of science and technology to society with the fact that new science and technology professionals from their generation will be necessary to sustain that industry.

“This is why we’re still seeing this disconnect between the projections of jobs, especially in oil and gas and in the energy sector, and cries to say, ‘You know, if we don’t do something, we may not actually have the talent in Canada for it,’” said Schmidt.

“If you go onto CurioCity, you’ll actually see articles and videos done by science-based volunteers in health, environment, technology, sports and entertainment,” she continued.

“We’re really trying to show them that, every single day, decisions that they make are founded on science and technology, and it does impact them as teenagers and as citizens [even] if they choose not to work in a science-based area.

“The decisions that they’ll make as citizens in this country are heavily influenced by science and technology. It’s cultural and it’s work-related.”

Simmons believes CurioCity can also help defeat the myth of science being all about test tubes and lab coats.

“I read this article about how students perceive math teachers, and it was in this really negative way,” said Simmons.

“Just not cool,” she continued. “I think that’s… what I thought when I thought about careers in science. And I definitely found science challenging. And I wasn’t always that good at it. But I found it really interesting.”

Simmons has been impressed by the other profiles on CurioCity, many of which she feels should be interesting careers to those using the site.

“A really big problem for me in university was that I couldn’t decide what to do,” she said. “I [thought] everything’s so interesting. I can do anything. What’s it going to be? When I look at other career profiles in CurioCity, I’m like, ‘Oh, wow, this is really cool. I would have never even thought to do this.’

“I just kind of came up onto physics and found it interesting and enjoyed it.”

Geophysics has been a rewarding career for Simmons.

“When I think about doing anything else, I just can’t imagine it,” she said. “I’ve had such great experiences because of my career in science. I’ve done a lot of traveling. I’ve been up north. This past year, I went to China. Really just awesome work experiences.”

Simmons believes her career actually hasn’t been what most people would expect, including herself when she was growing up in Newfoundland.

“I was from a really small community,” she continued. “My parents fished. And the whole community was kind of built around fishing. So, it was hard to imagine these careers in science. I didn’t really know even what they were. So, now, the sort of things that I do and the sort of places I get to go, it’s just really fun. It’s not the way that you would think it is.

“It’s just totally different than I would have thought when I was in high school.”

That appears to be a big part of the message that Schmidt would like to relay to students through CurioCity.

“It’s really showcasing to young people that there are many, many, many careers available with a math and science background,” said Schmidt.

“And not to close the door on science, because they maybe don’t even realize the jobs that they could get. Because, typically, in high school, you think about the traditional jobs in science – doctor, nurse, science teacher. And a lot of young people get through high school without even realizing that you can have a job in a different field because it hasn’t been made relevant to them during their high school experience.”

So, Let’s Talk Science is taking a different approach than a lot of careers sites with CurioCity.

“There’s lots of sites and programs that are available that talk about the nitty gritty of what courses you have to study to become a certain type of a career,” said Schmidt.

“But what there really isn’t enough of is a … place where you can identify people and what people do and how science and [technology] and math assist in playing an important role in their jobs, even though you may not think they’re jobs that … need science and [technology].”

It is easy for science and technology professionals to participate in the program.

“They can just contact Let’s Talk Science or go onto the CurioCity site and contact us,” said Schmidt.

“We also work one-on-one with people as they come forward to say they’re interested in volunteering. So, we’ll identify who they are, what they’d like to do with their area of expertise, and we’re able to tailor an opportunity for them to participate.

“The more people we can get wanting to submit information about their own career and how science and math and tech have influenced their job, even if it doesn’t seem to be on the surface, we’d love it.”

“I learned about CurioCity through Let’s Talk Science.,” said Simmons.

“When I was in university, I volunteered a little bit with Let’s Talk Science. And I guess I kind of remained in touch with those people. And when I moved to Ontario and started working full time, they would contact me for different things. And I just wanted to stay involved in my community.

“I almost was a teacher,” she added. “So, I really wanted to be involved with students and getting them interested in science. I think it’s a good thing.”

The site has had over 70,000 visits and several hundred registrations during its first few months.

“We’ve hardly even done any marketing,” said Schmidt.

The success of the project won’t simply be measured by site hits and registered users, however.

“We started to look at enrolment in optional science credits and applications to postsecondary courses as baseline,” said Schmidt. “Over the next few years we’ll start to see whether we’re able to impact behaviour.

“Right now, we’re trying to mobilize kids, we’re trying to get classrooms connected and we’re trying to connect the science community with those people in the classrooms,” she added.

Ultimately, it is all about changing attitudes.

“One of the key messages is: do not close the door on your maths and sciences in high school,” said Schmidt. “Because many times young people are getting to the college system and are realizing that they dropped science and math too soon. They actually have to do catch-up years to get those foundational courses before they can even get going on their career.

“We’re also really interested in young people realizing how math and science and [technology] are involved in the skilled trades,” she continued.

“And we know there’s huge shortages in the energy sector in the skilled trades. But anyone who takes a look at the machinists or the welders or the drillers and [aren’t] thinking that they’re using math every day – it’s that kind of perception that we’re really trying to overcome so kids stay in the courses they will need for the jobs of the future.”

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