A classroom full of elementary students are split up into groups huddled around newspaper-lined tables. On the count of three, a volunteer with Sinai Health’s SciHigh outreach program directs the kids to push their hands into squishy piles of bananas. Laughter fills the air, along with a few “yucks” and “ews”. The kids might not realize it when they’re wrist-deep in banana guck, but they’re learning the messy yet important first step in DNA extraction. It’s also the spark that will ignite their love of learning for years to come.
For 25 years, Sinai Health’s SciHigh program, organized by the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, has brought the science lab into elementary and high school classrooms across Toronto and the GTA. Whether it’s an in-person session or a virtual, interactive lesson during COVID-19, graduate students and post-doctorate fellows volunteer their time to show children just how fun science and health research can be. 100% free of charge, SciHigh provides the lessons, equipment, and materials to create a memorable day for curious young minds. This zero-cost initiative is a crucial teaching tool for schools that don’t have the funding to pay for lab equipment or specialized science courses.
Sinai Health’s SciHigh outreach program also runs science open houses, organizes an annual science fair for intermediate students, and hosts internships for high school seniors interested in pursuing a post-secondary education in science. There is also an emphasis on diversity and inclusion - showing the next generation there’s a place for everyone in the scientific community.
This message hits home for SciHigh volunteer Krista Schleicher. Now a PhD student in the Schramek Lab at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, Schleicher recalls how even from a young age, she didn’t see a lot of women represented in science. “I was that kid who asked questions all the time about everything. I first realized science was linked to answering things,” says Schleicher. “But in my mind at the time, if you got me to draw a picture of a scientist it would have been an old white guy, so science wasn’t an opportunity for a career path, as now it is a great opportunity that I did pursue.”
Lorien Iantomasi is the outreach coordinator in the research training centre at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute. For Iantomasi, science literacy includes debunking myths about what a scientist looks like. “Many of our volunteers are women and our volunteers have diverse backgrounds,” says Iantomasi. “Scientists come in all colours and genders. It doesn’t matter who you are. You can be a scientist.”
That message is proving to have an influence on the students who take part in SciHigh, showing just how valuable this outreach program is for countless students over the years. “We’re getting kids who we visited as elementary students, who participate in our science fairs in middle school, and then come back in high school looking for internship opportunities,” says Iantomasi. “It’s really neat to see that spark from elementary school carry forward.”
Science literacy is at the heart of every SciHigh lesson, and that definition has taken on new meaning in recent years. “If anything, COVID-19 has shown the importance of programs like SciHigh existing,” says Iantomasi. “Catching kids from an early age and showing them how to be responsible citizens and how to be a critical thinker and not believe everything on Facebook.”
“Even if you don’t want to get into science, you should be able to advocate for yourself and your health,” adds Schleicher.
As the world begins a return to normal, both Iantomasi and Schleicher are eager to get back into classrooms. “It’s a really wonderful thing to be able to pique their interest in science from a young age,” says Schleicher. “They’re so excited, they’re so fresh, and they have so many great questions.”
Iantomasi says experiments like extracting DNA from bananas sums it all up. “The best thing about our program is the hands-on nature of it. Being in classes and seeing the spark in the kids’ eyes.”
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