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Celebrating science: Why outreach events like Spectrum are important

By in Opinions

Every year, you can find a multitude of outreach events that promote science and technology to Saskatoon’s populace. The University of Saskatchewan is often the epicentre of these celebrations — like the popular Science Rendezvous, hosted by Let’s Talk Science and held on campus each May.

The College of Engineering has a long history of hosting its own science, technology, engineering and mathematics celebration called Spectrum. Spectrum is a triennial student-run initiative that was first held 89 years ago as a way for engineering students to showcase their work. Originally known as the U of S Engineering Show, it was renamed in 1973 to entice public engagement.

Evolving from a niche event to a full-blown STEM celebration, Spectrum offers student displays, guest speakers and special exhibitions for all ages. This year, the theme is exploration of science and engineering — a simple theme that is of huge importance.

“We did it a bit different this year,” Spectrum co-ordinator Gillian Leach said. “We thought [past themes] kind of made it inaccessible, so instead, we’ve gone with the tagline ‘explore science and engineering.’ I think that is really indicative of what it actually is.”

Leach describes the exciting events, including a Canadian Space Agency surprise — with a live link to the International Space Station — and a panel of women in STEM that is part of the speaker series, which runs Saturday, Jan. 12 and Sunday, Jan. 13.

“People are exposed to [science] in a comfortable way, not something [where] people are talking above them with technical jargon but in a way like Spectrum, where we are inviting the community to come in and learn,” Leach said.

Versions of U of S Huskies Formula Racing vehicles are on display at a past Spectrum event.

Leach is hopeful this environment gets people to appreciate science and says that, if she would have had access to events like Spectrum from a young age, she would have known sooner that engineering was the right path for her — an experience she thinks is quite common for many.

We need science- engagement initiatives like Spectrum now more than ever. A message from the president of the Council of Canadian Academics in 2018 discussed Canadians’ understanding of science. Looking at a survey of attitudes among Canadians, they found that 93 per cent of the population were interested in learning about science.

A similar sentiment was echoed in a 2017 survey conducted by the Ontario Science Centre, which noted that 82 per cent of participants expressed wanting to “know more about science and how it affects our world.”

However, the 2018 report from OSC noted that public attitudes towards controversial topics remain strong. Of those polled, 53 per cent believed that genetically modified organisms are health hazards, while 19 per cent still believed there to be a link between autism and vaccinations — a belief that is concerningly high among millennials, with a whopping 27 per cent of this population in agreeance. 

The 2018 message from the CCA was cautious — while it did take note that we are less apprehensive about science compared to other countries, it also highlighted where we are lacking.

Perhaps the most troubling statistic is that, even though we held the top spot for science literacy, only 42 per cent of Canadians have the basic level of science knowledge needed to understand the STEM stories that circulate the media.

Science outreach events attract the enthusiastic and the curious. With dozens of educational demonstrations and exhibits geared towards the general public, it is hopeful that those in attendance will take away knowledge needed for navigating science in everyday life.

“Through outreach like this and going to science events, you can find out that science plays a big part in your life in ways that you don’t realize, and it’s fun and exciting,” Leach said. “You don’t have to be a scientist to attend these events. You just have to be curious about the world.”

The College of Engineering will host Spectrum 2019 from Jan. 10 to 13.

Erin Matthews / Opinions Editor

Photo: Spectrum / Supplied

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