Empowering a new generation of scientists and innovators

 

With the launch of a groundbreaking national foundation, charities like Scientists in School can prepare thousands more kids across Canada for a future dominated by STEM

On any given day, the teachers at Dr. C.F. Cannon in Durham Region, a diverse community east of Toronto, have their work cut out for them as they strive to prepare students for the world into which they will one day graduate.

The 375 kids who attend the elementary school, from kindergarten to grade 8, face a future dominated by what’s known as STEM – science, technology, engineering and math. From artificial intelligence and robotics to green power generation and food sustainability, an estimated 75 per cent of all new jobs will be related to these critical fields in just 10 years.

At C.F. Cannon, however, the push to instill STEM fundamentals means so much more than inspiring the next Stephen Hawking or Roberta Bondar.

Though they are young, many students here already know what it is to feel the chronic stress and strain of economic hardship and hunger. Many families in Durham Region struggle to make ends meet – a daily reality that threatens to follow kids well into their adult lives and, without intervention, trap them in a cycle of intergenerational poverty.

STEM curriculum is an important means to a better, friendlier future. Studies suggest that early exposure to math and science is the best indicator of future STEM interest in high school and beyond, with the added benefit of teaching children essential skills such as critical thinking, problem solving and collaboration. Post-secondary STEM graduates also typically enjoy higher-than-average employment rates and earnings, especially those with a background in engineering and computer science, according to Statistics Canada.

“We just need to light those sparks and open the world of STEM that is around them,” says Melissa Sparkman, school principal at C.F. Cannon.

That’s where the TELUS Friendly Future Foundation comes in. With a $120 million donation from TELUS, the Foundation launched in 2018 as a means to address social and economic challenges facing Canada’s most disadvantaged citizens, in particular youth, by connecting them to the people, resources and services they need to thrive.

Specifically, the Foundation supports the work of 13 Canadian Community boards which exist to enable even the smallest grassroots charities on the front lines of social need in our communities to receive funding grants that will be used to help youth build digital literacy skills, provide basic healthcare and mental health support to the homeless, and open up essential educational opportunities. The decision-making power resides in the hands of community leaders selected for their in depth knowledge of the social challenges faced by youth in their local community.

That’s welcome news to Scientists in School, a Toronto-based social enterprise charity that delivers investigative, STEM-based workshops to hundreds of thousands of school-age children, K-8, across Alberta and Ontario, including those in Durham Region. The organization relies on funding from TELUS to operate.

“We want these youth to be able to make informed decisions informed by evidence-based reasoning and thinking,” says Cindy Adams, the organization’s executive director, of the mandate. “But we make it fun at the same time. The kids get to be scientists and engineers.”

Ultimately, the organization seeks to boost kids’ confidence in their ability to understand and embrace STEM studies -- particularly young women, who remain less likely to choose a career in STEM areas, and more particularly in engineering, mathematics and computer science, according to federal data.

Of course, igniting a life-long appreciation for STEM’s real-life – and life-changing – applications is also critical in the fight against complex global issues like climate change, serious health issues such as Ebola, and life-threatening issues like food shortages.

“The next generation has the promise to solve these challenges,” says Adams.

Scientists in School has long partnered with TELUS to help fund its workshops, which offer hands-on instruction in everything from photosynthesis and the physics of gears and pulley systems to global ecosystems and the microscopic world of cells – all of them taught by real-life scientists and innovators. Through its Community Boards, TELUS has donated $200,000 since 2006 in support of the organization. A portion of that money is earmarked to fund presentations in under-resourced schools like C.F. Cannon.

Adams says corporate donations and others make it possible for Scientists in School to close the access gap between rich and poor to specialized STEM education, and allow dozens more schools to receive their workshops free of charge. To date, TELUS funding has been used to support 12 schools in Ontario through the organization’s “adopt-a-school” program, providing 480 complimentary workshops to schools serving low-income communities and reaching 12,960 young scientists, according to the charity.

“Without our donors, this work wouldn’t be possible,” says Adams. “Working together we will close the educational success opportunity gap.”

The gratitude is shared by the staff at C.F. Cannon, which has worked with Scientists in School for the past three years. As an adopted school, C.F. Cannon is able to deliver the enriched workshops without any additional fees twice a year to children in Grades 4-8. Principal Melissa Sparkman is so impressed with the programming, the school now pays to deliver workshops to the younger kids.

“We need to have our kids be curious about learning, be creative and look to problem-solve, and this is just such a great opportunity,” says Sparkman. “We know that when kids are engaged in learning, they are more successful in school.

Teacher Shannon Van Pelt can attest to how the discovery-based structure of the workshops is able to “ignite the kids’ enthusiasm” for the sciences, having witnessed several firsthand.

As an educator, she says, the energetic response “verifies for me that the kids were listening and absorbing the learning in the classroom when I see them applying their knowledge in the workshops.”

More importantly, though, she sees a shift in how the kids view STEM education. The transformation is almost magical.

“They start to notice different things happening, and they realize that, basically, science is everywhere -- it’s in the doorknobs to the classroom, and in their homes and in the plants,” she says.

“They start to become empowered as scientists.”