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Hands-on STEM

Memorial graduate students create programming for entire northern school

By Kelly Foss

Last year, a woman teaching at a small school in northern Quebec reached out to two Memorial doctoral students she knew for help with fun science experiments for her Grade 5 class.

Three boys and a girl stand around a table which holds a cup full of colouring pencils and a sculpture made of colourful plastic pieces.
Young students working together on a design and engineering challenge.
Photo: Submitted

Roshni Kollipara, a PhD student in the Division of Biomedical Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, and Evan Langille, a PhD student the Department of Chemistry, Faculty of Science, quickly got to work.

Accessible science

“Science outreach has been something I’ve been involved with, and passionate about, for a very long time,” said Ms. Kollipara. “It’s important to make science accessible to people, and the pandemic really brought to light how essential it is to have a good understanding of, and trust in, science.”

The pair, who are also spouses, continued talking with Nancy Nickerson of Jaanimmarik secondary school in Kuujjuaq and decided that while it would be nice to do science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programming for her class, it would be even better to do something for the entire school.

One boy looks into the eyepiece of a microscope while another watches.
Students observe a prepared specimen under a compound microscope.
Photo: Submitted

To carry out the project, they obtained funding from Memorial University’s Public Engagement Accelerator Fund, which provides up to $10,000 to support public engagement projects that link to Memorial’s academic mission.

Reusable and local resources

“We wanted to cater our STEM program specifically to the school, so we worked as closely as we could with the teachers there,” said Ms. Kollipara.

They received a lot of feedback and tailored their program and materials for the various ages and subjects.

“One project, for example, was an engineering challenge, where they could build a boat out of materials,” said Ms. Kollipara. “When I did that myself as a kid, all my materials were disposable plastic from the dollar store. But we wanted to make sure we weren’t sending them things that would end up in their landfill, because that’s not helpful in the long term.

Three boys put together colourful pieces of plastic.
Another design and engineering challenge.
Photo: Submitted

“Instead, we sent things that were very reusable, or made of materials like wood. But we also included prompts for the teachers that reminded them they could go outside and collect things from nature to use.”

As part of the program, Mr. Langille and Ms. Kollipara also contacted Indigenous scientists and scholars from Memorial and elsewhere in Canada and asked for short videos for the students about their professions and career paths, and their experience with STEM.

“I grew up in Corner Brook and, while it’s certainly not rural, it is relatively small,” said Ms. Kollipara. “I remember saying in high school I wanted to be a scientist, but it didn’t seem like a real job because I hadn’t actually met one before. That was even with Memorial’s Grenfell Campus so close by. If I felt that way, how did people feel who were in even more rural communities?”

Unfortunately, due to poor internet service and access, in addition to lockdowns, that part didn’t pan out. But they’re hopeful that any future programs will include Indigenous resources as well.

Enrichment activities

Ultimately, the pair shipped seven large packages to the Quebec school in April.

It included contributions from the Faculty of Medicine as well as the Department of Biology in the Faculty of Science, and The Seed Company in St. John’s.

The packages will support a number of enrichment activities at the school in all STEM fields from Grades 4 through 12.

Despite the challenges, the pair hopes the program can continue. They’ve reached out to some interested individuals in the province who could be liaisons in communities and will pass on their knowledge from the pilot program.

Public videos from the project can be accessed via the project’s YouTube channel.

For inquires related to the project, contact northernstemoutreach@gmail.com.

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