Program puts high school hands on science

By Paul Mayne
January 09, 2014

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OUTREACHsciencePaul Mayne, Western News
Western Biochemistry professor Chris Brandl said the Outreach Science Ontario program he created with fellow professor Greg Gloor in 1997 continues to show high school students the fun side of science, through in-classroom, hand-on experiments.

Chris Brandl had a strong feeling his idea would catch on.

In 1997, Brandl, along with fellow molecular biologist Greg Gloor, created Outreach Science Ontario (OSO), a hands-on science initiative for high school students.

“What struck us when we went to the early classrooms were the teachers. (They) were a little old school, and would literally lecture the entire class with overheads for an hour,” he said. “That’s when we realized this was going to be useful and much more engaging.”

OSO began by taking biotechnology modules into a handful of local secondary school biology classes. The program has since grown to more than 23 schools across five Ontario school boards, with more than 5,000 students being introduced to the ‘fun part’ of science.

Both professors continue in their efforts to expand the program, which may be adding more schools soon.

“This is hands-on learning and it’s really effective that way, because now in schools, they don’t do as many labs as they used to,” Brandl said. “There is always a group of students who don’t see themselves as perhaps ‘book smart,’ but they are much more technically oriented. So, you’ll see them really gravitate to the technical side of these labs.

“It really is about trying to get individuals more involved.”

The two kits delivered to the high schools include a polymerase chain reaction module and a cloning module – the latter being more in-depth. The kits include the necessary equipment and re-agents (chemicals used for the experiments). Initially, Brandl and Gloor taught the modules; today, they train teachers to present the lessons to their own classes.

Initially funded by Western’s Alumni Association, the program’s expenses were covered through Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada’s (NSERC) PromoScience initiative, until 2009. While looking for funding once again from NSERC, the program is currently supported by Western’s Department of Biochemistry.

Hopefully, the funding will continue, because Brandl said things aren’t slowing down.

In results released last month, Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), an international study of secondary students organized by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), ranked Canadian students among the top of the class in key subject areas. However, the results showed a noticeable decline over the years in math and science scores among the country's pupils.

Among 65 countries and economies participating in the assessment, Shanghai topped the list in science. Canada was outperformed in the subject by Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and Korea, as well as Finland and Estonia.

“(The demand is) getting more and more. We’re just getting overwhelmed with the requests. The students love it; the teachers love it. It is extremely well received,” he said. “Remember, they come to us.

“We understand a lot of them may not go into the sciences, but it’s about understanding the technologies, de-mystifying it, making it understood that this isn’t just for guys in funny white jackets. This is stuff they can do. Whether they go on to a career in this area, at least their understanding will be better.”

Brandl said for many students, this is the only major lab they’ll get during the year.

“We have had many teachers contact us after hearing of the availability of the kits,” he said. “It is encouraging to realize some of the teachers now teaching the technology were actually students taking the class during our initial high school visits.”

In 2009, Brandl helped McMaster University start a biotechnology kit-lending program in their region. That success has encouraged them to move forward with plans for another project at the University of Waterloo.

“A hands-on experiment in biotechnology teaches skills and is very different from a textbook lesson,” Brandl said. “This program reaches the largest possible number of students, ensures they are taught by expertly trained teachers and is backed by scientists extremely well versed in the science.”

Brandl believes students at this grade level have the necessary knowledge base to appreciate the details of the science and to be inspired by the skills they perform.

“The modules are also effective in increasing students’ confidence in their technical abilities and in demonstrating the excitement of bench science,” Brandl said. “Our teachers often tell us of students who become highly motivated upon realizing their practical skills in the hands-on aspects of the science. This module is the highlight of their senior science term.”


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