Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Portfolio Building 1: Let's Talk Science

There are lots of ways to get involved in science communication and if you are interested in applying to the SciComm program, you'll need a portfolio. Your portfolio may include anything related to science communication including live programing, live programming design, posters, articles, displays and more. In this first of many portfolio building posts, we'll talk about the university based Let's Talk Science program and how it can give some great experience in this field.

Let's Talk Science (LTS) is an award winning, national program that engages youth in science. The program is run by a small staff and a ton of volunteers (over 2000 to date) and they have partnership programs in most universities across Canada.

Volunteers in the partnership program engage youth, from small kids to high school students in science, engineering and technology activities. The university student volunteers team up with local teachers and go into classrooms to do fun activities, usually related to the teacher's science curriculum. It is a ton of fun for the volunteer and the audience. Depending on your time commitment, you may design your own activity or use ready made kits from your local LTS office. In addition you get experience in communicating science to a variety of levels.

There are many levels of participation in this program. Let's Talk Science has a huge network and has forged a great relationship with local schools. The program sends out volunteers to help judge science fairs, set up science challenge days (All Science Challenge) or conduct on campus activities for visiting schools. If you are interested in science writing, Let's Talk Science has a teen science e-magazine called Cram Science.

I am a alumni from the Memorial University of Newfoundland's LTS program and I was heavily involved in the biology section of "Lab Extravaganza". During "Lab Extravaganza" schools would visit various science departments and labs, and do activities related to research of the university. Fellow graduate student Paul Regular (PhD candidate, sea bird ecology) and I loved looking at research projects and designing an activities out of them.

Let's Talk Science, we're really enthusiastic about science. (Paul Regular, PhD Candidate in seabird ecology, Memorial University)

A particular favorite activity of mine (and also one of my submitted portfolio items) was on Whiskered Auklets to demonstrate sensory adaptations. These birds have feathers that stick out on their heads like whiskers and they live in crevices and burrows. They use the "whiskers" to help navigate in the dark crevices. We built model bird heads out of styrofoam balls and attached whipper snipper cable to half of them for "whiskers". A long cardboard box with open ends was used as a burrow. Students had to close their eyes and try to navigate through the burrow without hitting the bird's head against the sides using whiskered and non-whiskered models. Whiskered models were much easier to get through than non-whiskered models. We would discuss their results and talk about other animals with different sensory parts. For those interested in bird ecology, here is the reference:

Seneviratine, S. and Jones, I.L. 2008. Mechanosensory function for facial ornamentation in the whiskered auklet, a crevice-dwelling seabird. Behavioural Ecology. Published online March 7, 2008. doi:10.1093

Whiskered Auklets

This is an example of how you can take research and transform it into something youth can understand. At the end of the day, that is what science communication is about, transforming science so that a diversity of people can understand and learn about it.

Let's Talk Science is a top notch program and I encourage anyone in science to participate in their activities. They have many more activities than what I've talked about here, so check out their website. It is great for adding to your resume, building your portfolio and it is just plain rewarding.

To find a LTS office near you, visit their website,

- Justin

Monday, October 26, 2009

Speaking whale and public speaking

Are you a little nervous about presenting in front of audiences?  That’s ok, some of us are too!

Once again, spending a morning off in class was just what we were hoping for!  Franco Mariotti, a staff scientist at Science North with over 25 years of science communication experience, engaged us all in a wonderful presentation about presentation skills.  This year, like most years, all of the students in the SciComm program have different backgrounds – we’ve got a teacher, an actress, and other presenters, along with other students who have little or no experience talking in front of groups.  Franco’s presentation about whales was a great opportunity for all of us to be reminded of presentation strategies we may have used in the past, as well as to learn new presentation skills.  

Merissa, after the presentation, taking a look at some of Franco’s props (whale baleen)!

Here are some tips to consider while doing any presentation of your own!
  • Begin with clear objectives.  Make sure you know what you are going to present and try not to be all over the place with information!  An audience likes knowing what you are going to discuss and will be less distracted since they won’t be thinking, ‘I wonder what he will say next...’ 
  • Make it interesting!  Do your research and learn about what you’re presenting.  If you find it interesting, chances are the audience will also find it interesting!  Also, the more prepared you are, the more comfortable you will be with the topic.
  • Use some objects and visuals if possible.  In Franco’s presentation, he brought along a poster with whale photos, as well as real and model teeth, small whale models, and krill (Krill look like little shrimp – yes, like in Finding Nemo!  Remember how the huge whale opens his mouth and Nemo gets eaten along with a whole bunch of krill?)
  • When using objects, consider bringing along a “magic box”.  Bringing and hiding your objects in a box so that the audience can’t see them before you want them to can add suspense!  It will also be less distracting to the audience since they won’t be wondering what your objects are before you are ready to discuss them. 
  • Final tip about visuals – don’t pass around any objects during the presentation!  This is distracting to both the presenter and the audience.  Consider letting the audience know that they can come up and look at the objects at the end of the presentation. 
  • Try using relatable information.  For example, an audience may have a hard time imagining big a whale is.  Like Franco did, you may consider saying, “Imagine everyone in this room was 200 pounds.  That would be a total of about 2000 pounds.  This is the same as the smallest mass of a whale! (And point to the diagram...)”
  • Be aware of your pace.  You shouldn’t be talking too fast or too slow. 
  • Adapt your presentation to your audience!  We have been learning in our Audiences and Issues class about the importance of knowing your audience!  You want to try and draw from the prior knowledge of your audience.  Consider how you would present something to an audience who knows a lot about your presentation topic and how you would present to an audience who knows very little about your topic. 
  • Eye contact is important – however, keep in mind that too much eye contact can make your audience members feel a little uncomfortable.
  • Using hand gestures and body movement can show the audience that you’re open.  Try to stay within the “box” – your stomach and chest area.  Too much body movement or pacing can be extremely distracting. 
  • Don’t talk in a monotone voice!  Voice moderation and tones are important to show the audience that you are interested and interesting!  They will be more likely to pay attention if you make it sound fun. 
  • You may choose to make your presentation interactive.  If you have a small group, you may want to ask a couple questions to get a feel for your audience and get them involved.  This should be limited to 2-3 questions per presentation.  Also, don’t forget that there is often time for questions at the end of a presentation!
  • Finally, “expose yourself!”  Don’t be shy to show who you are!  You may choose to include personal facts or anecdotes.  This would be more useful in public talks.  (‘Scientific talks’ are often more about facts and don’t allow the opportunity to express emotions.)  Just like I learned during my Bachelor of Education year, your audience needs to know that you are human!  You are more relatable and the audience becomes more interested.

Check out Stephanie-Lynn after Franco’s presentation!

And now, just like us, you are all prepared to do your own wonderful presentations!  Good luck!

-    Sarah

Also, here is an interesting fact that we just couldn’t leave out! We also learned in Franco’s presentation about whales that we may have been a little misinformed in the movies – when baleen whales (the ones without actual ‘teeth’) take in all of the water and krill, they only want the krill.  All of that water would be way too much for their stomachs to handle!  How do they get rid of the water?  Not through the blowholes like they show in the movies.  The blowholes are used to breathe, not release water.  The extra water is actually released out of the mouth!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Free to Learn Science

We met Dr. John Falk last week. He is one of the authors of one of our textbooks, "Learning from Museums". His main area of research is free-choice learning in science education, particularly in museums. He and rhetoritian Dr. Carolyn Miller were visiting as part of a review by the Ontario Council of Graduate School.

It is too bad that they were only visiting for a short time. A guest lecture from them would have been great. One of our professors, Chantal Barriault, is a big fan of Dr. Falk's work.

Free-choice learning is an interesting concept that I never really thought about. We generally learn from three main sources; school, work and free-choice learning. The last one, is often overlooked. Free-choice learning is essentially learning "what we want, but also where we want, when we want and with whom we want" (Falk 2002). This includes learning from books, magazines, television, museums, science centres, word of mouth and more.

Dr. Falk's studies in the United States indicate that people learn a lot of science from free-choice sources compared to school or work. For example, people look up medical information online if a family member of friend has been diagnosed with an illness. People watch Mythbusters and Discovery Channel and get all sorts of information. The first point is that people can learn a lot of information when they want to, and they can learn a difficult topic like science. I'm sure that everyone can come up with an example in their own lives. I, like many kids, had spent a lot of my youth learning about dinosaurs. 

SciComm Class with John Falk. Top row (left to right): Julie Fisowich, Kevin McAvoy, James Baxter-Gilbert, John Falk, Myles Carter, Steph Lynn-Russell, Merissa Scarlett, Iara Dos Santos. Bottom row (left to right): Justin So, Jenn McCallum, Sarah Bouchard, Holly Baker, Mylene Lenzi.

People learn  personally interesting science topics from free-choice sources moreso than from formal education. Does this mean that school isn't important? Are governments misguided in funding schools to increase science literacy?

Not really. I would argue that it is good to have a standard set of school science topics to appeal to a variety of students. However, the studies show that free-choice learning is just as important as formal schooling and should not be overlooked.

If organizations and governments really want to engage people in science there should be an increase in newspaper science articles and stories (which are in decline) or in science TV programming. People want to learn science, given the right source. For me, I think I'll go watch another episode of Jurassic Fight Club... Ciao.

- Justin

Falk JH (2002) The contribution of free-choice learning to public understanding of Science. Interciencia. 27(2):62-65

Friday, October 16, 2009

"Sprucing" up Laurentian Campus

Dr. Beckett talking to our class about planting white spruce.
How would you offset your carbon footprint? What exactly IS your carbon footprint? The term refers to the "total set of greenhouse gas emissions caused directly or indirectly by an individual, group, organization, product, etc." The folks at Laurentian University (LU) have calculated that 4000 trees need to be planted annually to offset their carbon footprint. This past week, our SciComm class planted about 10% of those trees (400 trees) under the direction of LU biologist, Peter Beckett.

The small white spurice saplings we were planting were actually grown in one of Sudbury's mines as part of INCO's own regreening efforts. The idea of using old mines to grow saplings, sprouted out of a previous project by Dr. Beckett and a colleague to grow cucumbers and other vegetables in mines.

The site of the future SciComm forest.

Merissa and Sarah lovingly planting a sapling.

White spruce is a shade tolerant, native species, perfect for growing among the birch trees. They are also a climax species of the region. Alright, quick biology lesson... say for example you completely bulldoze an area leaving only soil. The area goes through a process called "succession" where a series of plant types will colonize the area. The first to take over the area would be quick growing and spreading grasses and weeds from the surrounding environment. As they grow, die and decompose, the plants are continually adding nutrients to the soil, making way for other plant species. You may get blueberry bushes and other shrubs in next, followed by deciduous trees like birch. Eventually conifers like white spruce would take over the region. With each succession of plants, they push out the other plant types till you reach the climax species.

You just can't keep James from looking for snakes... even at 5'C. He's holding a garter snake.

Though there were a few young and mature coniferous trees around, we helped the succession process along by planting our white spruce. We are expecting to get a survival rate of around 70% (fingers crossed). So expect to see our beautiful SciComm white spruce forest on the Laurentian campus in about 10 years...

To learn more about how you can minimize your carbon footprint visit

- Justin

LU Graduate School Expo

Sarah and Myles at our SciComm table.

Sarah, Myles and I were showcasing our program at Laurentian University's Graduate School Expo. Interested students learned about the different graduate programs offered at the University. Thanks to everyone who stopped by and congratulations to the lucky people who won free passes to Science North!
We'll be offering an information session about the program in November, so keep checking this blog for details!
- Justin

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Entrepreneurial Community of the Year!

Congratulations to the Mining Innovation, Rehabilitation and Applied Research Corporation (MIRARCO) for being named the Entrepreneurial Community of the Year at the 23rd Northern Ontario Business Awards Gala!

MIRARCO is the "largest not-for-profit applied research firm in North America [serving] the global natural resources industry by turning knowledge into profitable, innovative solutions".

The company is a huge supporter of the Science Communication Program which we appreciate greatly. Congratulations again MIRARCO!

For more information about MIRARCO, visit their website. For more information on the Entrepreneurial Community of the Year award, follow this link.

Graduate school exposed! Laurentian University!

Wondering about Grad school?

On October 13-14, Laurentian University is hosting a Graduate Student Exposition from 10am-3pm in the Arts building "bowling alley". Learn about graduate programs at Laurentian and other Universities.

The Science Communication program will have a table on October 14. Come out and ask us questions or pick up some freebies. See you there!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Side Effects May Include KNOWLEDGE

If there’s one thing college student’s love more than anything else, it’s waking up early for a special 10 AM lecture on a day off. Thanks to the fine work of our program directors, we got to do exactly that this past Friday.

Helen Leask is the president and creative director of Script Medical, a Toronto based company which bills itself as a strategic medical communications agency [...] grounded in good science. The staff of Script Medical has a goal “to turn your science... into sales” which it does primarily in the field of medical writing between “dance breaks, journal clubs and crazy off-sites”.

The bright-eyed SciCommies interact with our special guest.

Much of the lecture was punctuated by exercises which involved us as a class, which got me much more interested in the subject material. Essentially, we got a crash course in the process that takes a journal article on the effects of sildenafil citrate and produces a saucy advertisement for Viagra.

Identifying audiences and choosing the type of language one uses to address them was a major component. This meant learning what information was cut and what was included. Many of us had a hard time trying to stop talking like scientists, which meant practicing an active voice and undoing between four and eight years of training in about two hours.

Learning not to fear the personal pronoun.

The other major portion of the presentation involved how to market a product. This meant pairing the uses of products with the needs they filled in people’s life and exploiting marketing the connection. As a class we collectively established features and benefits of products. In our final activity, we attempted to market the H1N1 vaccine to young adults by identifying features and explaining the benefits of those features and slapping a flashy title on top to get people interested.

Brainstorming leading to marketing with the power of puns.

The lecture was a wonderful success, not just in learning about more methods of communicating science but also in learning a little more about how science communication is used all around us. With Ms. Leask in the House, we didn’t need to get into Scrubs and head over to the ER of a General Hospital to learn about this special M*A*S*H-up of science and writing.

...Grey’s Anatomy.

-Kevin McAvoy, B.Sc.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Spacing out in class

The Science Communication program has been nothing but opportunities since day one.  It’s now the middle week number six of this year’s Science Communication program and it seems like so much has happened!

Thinking back to day one of the SciComm program, I remember being extremely nervous to meet my new classmates.  We spent the morning introducing ourselves and getting to know Science North – our new home for the next year!   Right after lunch, we headed over to Laurentian University to observe a film shoot about re-greening in Sudbury.  We also took our very first group photo!

Sudbury Re-greening Film Shoot. Left to Right: Kevin McAvoy, James Baxter Gilbert, Justin So, Jenn McCallum, Myles Carter, Steph Lynn-Russell, Merissa Scarlett, Julie Fisowich, Holly Baker, Iara Dos Santos, Sarah Bouchard, Mylene Lenzi.

At the end of the day, we were in a Science North boardroom listening to Dr. Dave talk about the history of Science North (Dr. Dave helped found Science North back in the day!  He even showed us some blueprints of Science North!).  All of a sudden, we hear a knock of the door and a lady pokes her head in the room to ask Dr. Dave if Marc Garneau could come in for a quick visit.

Not too sure who Marc Garneau is?  Marc Garneau was the first Canadian astronaut to fly in space back in October 1984.  Now, he has made a total of 3 trips to space and was the president of the Canadian Space Agency for 5 years.  Marc Garneau is now a Liberal member of Parliament and came back to Sudbury at the end of August for the Liberal caucus retreat.

Marc Garneau came into our classroom and we had a chance to ask him a couple of questions before he toured around Science North.  Stephanie even asked him what it was like to be in space – very cool!

I think that because it was day one, we were a little bit nervous to take any photos of Marc Garneau.  However, to remember this exciting visit, I did keep an article from the Northern Life, one of Sudbury’s local newspapers!  We tried our best to scan it in!

(Northern Life, Sept 3, 2009)

I went home that day and said, “Well, I think that this is going to be a great year!”  Going to a commercial shoot, meeting Marc Garneau and having a great time with all of my new friends?  By far, that was the best first day of school ever.

To learn more about Marc Garneau and the 25th year of Canadian space travel, check out CBC News.

Sarah Bouchard, B.Sc., B.Ed.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Jane Goodall Lecture: A Message of Hope

Science Communication students with Dr. Goodall. Left to right: Justin So, Holly Baker, Julie Fisowich, James Baxter-Gilbert, Dr. Jane Goodall, Kevin McAvoy, Iara Dos Santos, Myles Carter.

Despite wars, pollution, environmental crises and endangered species, there is hope in the world. That was the message from Dr. Jane Goodall’s lecture at Science North’s 10th annual Roots & Shoots conference last week. Dr. Goodall, the world renowned primatologist and UN Ambassador for peace, is the founder of the  program which empowers youth to carry out local social and environmental projects to better the world.

Dr. Jane Goodall explains the program in her book "Reason to Hope". Roots & Shoots “is a symbolic name; roots creep underground everywhere and make a firm foundation; shoots seem new and small, but to reach the light can break apart brick walls. Brick walls of overpopulation, deforestation, soil erosion, ... materialism, cruelty, crime, warfare and all the problems that we humans have inflicted on the planet. The message of Roots & Shoots is one of hope: hundreds of thousands of roots and shoots – young people – around the world can break through. The program stresses the value of the individual – every single one of us matters, has a role to play, makes a difference.”

Over 700 students attended the conference from Sudbury and the surrounding area to take part in a tree planting activity and social and environmental workshops. Our SciComm class volunteered at the conference and attended Dr. Goodall’s evening lecture. She was an amazing speaker and was an inspiration to every person in the room. It made me think, not only about our role in bettering our planet, but why she was such an excellent speaker.

We have been learning about the rhetoric of science (the art of communication and persuasion in science) in our course with Philippa Spoel. There are three modes of persuasion are ethos, logos, pathos, which appeal to a different parts of us to persuade us. A person persuades us when we trust their credibility (ethos) or if we believe their logical and reasonable arguments (logos). We are also persuaded through emotions elicited (pathos) by the speech.

Dr. Goodall uses all these modes of persuasion well, even if she is not aware of it. She has personally seen humanity’s horrific acts (ethos) and provided examples for why we need to change our destructive ways (logos). She told success stories of species and habitats that have recovered to show us that there is hope for the world, and that it is not too late (pathos). These well used modes make Dr. Goodall's lectures compelling and inspiring to her audiences around the world.

I’ll end this post with another passage from her book "Reason for Hope". “Yes, I do have hope. I do believe we can look forward to a world in which our great-grandchildren and their children after them can live in peace... [but] we don’t have much time. The planet’s resources are running out. And so if we truly care about the future of our planet we must stop leaving it to “them” out there to solve all the problems. It is up to us to save the world for tomorrow: it’s up to you and me.”

For more information on Jane Goodall or the Roots & Shoots program visit and

- Justin