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Science and everyday life: Outreach and education programs help to diversify the discipline

By in Features
Education program lead Tracy Walker stands on the Canadian Light Source sign. | Supplied by Tracy Walker

For decades, the motif of the ivory tower has been used to illustrate academia and, more often, the institution of science. It is falsely regarded as something removed from our day-to-day lives — a grandiose shadow lording over our periphery.  

While it may be viewed as a tower of secrets kept away from prying eyes, science is something intertwined in the very way that we view the world, whether we are conscious of this or not.

In 1940, Rosalind Franklin — a young scientist whose later research would lead to our understanding of the shape of DNA — wrote an impassioned letter to her father, saying:

“You look at science (or at least talk of it) as some sort of demoralising invention of man, something apart from real life, and which must be cautiously guarded and kept separate from everyday existence. But science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated.”

Science is a distinct human activity, one that is born from the depths of our curiosity. It is not an invention of man, but a process that is at the very core of what makes us human. The desire that, when faced with a problem, we ask, “why?” followed shortly by “how?”

For the past year, I have been working at one of the biggest research facilities on campus. The only one of its kind in the country, the Canadian Light Source is a glass and metal giant that stands on the edge of Innovation Place and Perimeter Road.

Education program co-ordinator Amanda Pfeiffer talks to a group from the Students on the Beamlines program at the Canadian Light Source. | Supplied by Canadian Light Source

The CLS is a machine called a particle accelerator — it moves electrons to produce light used in experiments and research — and it is a place where some national and international science breakthroughs have occurred.

From the inside of the second floor office space — a sleek cubicle city affectionately named ‘podville’ — a wall of windows captures an ever expanding prairie horizon. But despite its lofty view and cold exterior, the CLS is not an ivory tower. It’s an open door — one that beckons to scientists, students and the community at large. 

And in my position in the communications and outreach department, I have had the unique opportunity to speak to many of the people who visit the facility.

This September, I met Stephanie Keyes, a physics student from Oregon. She had just finished an internship at Brookhaven National Laboratory, a massive research facility in New York that is home to seven Nobel Prize-winning discoveries. 

But before Brookhaven, Stephanie was what her mentor — science projects manager Rob Blyth — refers to as “a skier in the desert.”

Stephanie is a talented woman whose mind can work through complex problems in ways that are unique. She can take on the point of view of electrons spinning in a particle accelerator, she can craft three-dimensional geometric origami pieces and she talks candidly and eloquently about herself and her experience. She is a young woman with a passion for bows, rollercoasters and particle accelerators. 

Stephanie Keyes stands on a mezzanine with the synchrotron in the background. | Photo by Victoria Schramm. Courtesy of the Canadian Light Source.

Stephanie is also on the autism spectrum.

“I had been in college for a couple years and then I quit college for several more years because I was having problems with the administration and my autism. They didn’t really know what to do when I got upset so their best resort was to just suspend me for crying,” Stephanie said.

“So I just spent the last several years taking a minimum wage job, and then finally when I started getting interested in particle accelerators, that’s when things started looking up.”

That was in 2015, the year that Stephanie met her mentor Rob on Twitter.

“She started asking me questions [like] ‘How much does it weigh?’ and ‘Can you tell the difference when it’s on and when it’s off?’’’ Rob said. “And then the one that made me think that Stephanie was someone a little special, she went ‘I think if you turn off the [radio frequency], the beam decays in about 3 milliseconds.’ And I am like, ‘How do you even know to ask that question and that sounds about right.’”

And Stephanie’s estimate was pretty close. According to Rob, she was within an order of magnitude — “which is spot on if you’re a physicist.”

After their ongoing Twitter conversations, Stephanie was able to come to Canada to visit the CLS and was encouraged by Rob to go back to school. She enrolled in community college and came back to the facility for an opportunity to work hands-on with the machine.

Stephanie credits her personal growth and awareness of her needs to her success. She also talks openly about her autism.

“[Autism] can have positive aspects to it. You can’t deny that it has challenges, but for me it’s basically a driving force for my particle accelerator interest and the career I am building for myself,” Stephanie said.

What if the best skier in the world was born in the desert? Who would ever know?

While Stephanie’s case is unique, it shows that many people who have the potential to succeed in scientific endeavours may not have access to programs. They may also lack the support systems that would allow them to get their foot in the door. It illustrates the importance of science outreach efforts and science education programs.

The education team at the Canadian Light Source — education program co-ordinator Amanda Pfeiffer and education program lead Tracy Walker — are working to bring students the opportunity to engage in hands-on science.

“A lot of times in the classrooms you know the expected outcomes and the students are supposed to get that expected outcome. In this context, the CLS education programs are focusing on that authentic scientific inquiry where you develop a question and the students explore that,” Amanda said.

“They might not find the results they want. They might go down a completely different rabbit hole and it’s just about the experience as they go through that. Which reflects actual science that happens at the CLS and at other places,” Amanda said.

The CLS has several unique programs that have been developed through the years, growing organically into new areas of focus and inquiry. One of these programs, Students on the Beamlines, was created in 2006 as a one-off experiment with a physics class from Saskatoon.

But it was a massive success. Thirteen years later, Students on the Beamlines works as both a platform for science education and as a professional development opportunity for teachers. It also reaches far and wide, bringing in kids from as far away as Old Crow, Yukon.

Students are able to come to the facility and work closely with beamline staff on their own research project where they run samples on the beamlines and gather and interpret datasets.

The education team uses the phrase “science immersion” to describe their programs — coined by a student during their time at the CLS. These kinds of programs are invaluable, helping to change perceptions of science and the future of scientific discovery.

“The problems that society is facing today are going to require approaches and knowledge and skills that we don’t yet have,” Tracy said. “We need people to be able to approach problems from new perspectives, to approach problems outside of the proverbial box and be able to do so in a collaborative and meaningful way.”

Both Stephanie and Rob emphasize the idea of different perspectives and different faces in science. When you think of a traditional representation of scientists, you will probably describe Rob — a white, European man in his 50s with a shock of grey hair and an English accent. 

Diversity in science is growing, but there is still a long way to go before this idea of what a scientist should look like shifts.

A 3D origami cube created by Stephanie Keyes sits on Robert Blyth’s bookshelf in his office at the CLS on Nov. 1, 2019. | Erin Matthews/ Opinions Editor

“Show more scientists that deviate from that expected appearance and expected background. Show more women in science, more people of colour in science, more people of life backgrounds in science, show more people from LGBTQ community, from the disability community — all those different sorts of marginalized groups — we’re all into science too,” Stephanie said.

And it all comes back to looking for those skiers in the desert. 

Rob describes his time working at the Italian synchrotron, which is located in the same town as the International Centre for Theoretical Physics.

“It was founded on the idea that physicists can come from anywhere and be anybody. And all they really need — this was back in the 1970s — is another physicist to talk to and a chalkboard. And then you get theoretical physics,” Rob said.

The institute was founded by Nobel Prize-winning Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam, who believed that we need to make sure we aren’t leaving anyone out of science education. He coined the phrase that Rob has made his mantra.

“What if the best skier in the world was born in the desert? Who would ever know?” Rob said.

There is a lot that can happen when you reach people and empower them through educational programs that are designed to help them succeed. It all comes down to working with the strengths of individuals and communities. Science isn’t all about experiments and data, it’s about creativity and critical thought. And those are the skills that are needed in life, not just in a lab.

[Autism] can have positive aspects to it. You can’t deny that it has challenges, but for me it’s basically a driving force for my particle accelerator interest and the career I am building for myself,” Stephanie said.

Erin Matthews/ Opinions Editor

Photos: Supplied by Tracy Walker, Canadian Light Source, and Victoria Schramm, Erin Matthews/ Opinions Editor

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