Science Borealis

Science Borealis
Science Borealis

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Friday, 12 September 2014

(Em)Powered by Girls!

Today I heard a catchy tune on the radio.
It was "Anything" by Hedley.

I really liked how it made me feel that "I can do anything!"

But lets be real. Do we all feel like we can do anything? Do we always brush away the roles and expectations installed on us by society?

I always remind myself that my two girls grow up in a society that puts lots of barriers for women to choose their profession. I've already addressed this in a recent post

Luckily for me, during the summer while running the Pueblo Science Summer Camp, I took my campers to visit the Toronto Tool Library. An amazing DIY maker space with lots of machines from woodworking to 3D printing to electronics. Absolutely AWESOME!
But the thing that really stood out in my view was the fact that the person that showed us the space and later delivered a short program for us was a WOMAN!!! (Michelle is the name)

Here I am preaching to everyone that women should have an equal opportunity to pursue professions which are traditionally considered to be "jobs for men", and I act surprised to see a women doing just that. What does that say about me? For me it tells me that I've been predisposed to be surprised to see women doing "man jobs".



My answer to that is - more female role models. and Michelle is just that. By doing the stuff she does, by being the person I would like to see other girls seeing as a NORMAL choice for themselves, she is making a difference. And the more Michelles we have, the more obvious and normal it will be.

So when I mentioned that to Michelle, she said she shares these feelings and she is going to do something about that. And she did! She came up with a program called "Powered by Girls"
"Eight weeks dedicated to inspiring girls to explore, create, make, and do! With supervised access to a laser cutter, 3D printer, woodworking shop, and over 2,000 tools, girls will engage in a variety of workshops designed to fuel their confidence and ingenuity! Workshops will include introduction to coding, a spooky Tesla radio (for Halloween), 3D modelling, and more!"

What more can I say?

Power to the Girls! You have the power! and now you can have the Tool!

So if you come across these programs, don't keep it to yourselves. Talk about them. Share with others. Share with boys, share with girls. Let everyone know that Girls can do ANYTHING!

Thursday, 24 July 2014

The 23rd IUPAC International Conference on Chemical Education

A week ago, I had the pleasure of attending the 23rd IUPAC International Conference on Chemical Education. And it was indeed a treat.

I got to wear 3 hats for one week!
I gave a talk about my teaching experience as a Ph.D. student at UofT, being a lab demonstrator.
I gave 2 talks about Pueblo Science. One, sharing the work we do in Toronto and the GTA. The second, about the work we do in the Philippines.
And my third hat was that of the official 'twitter' for the conference.

I was happy with the feedback I got for my talks, which is always a great feeling. But the thing that was the real treat for me was the people I met. So many people who are concerned about education. How to make it better. How to engage students.

I'd like to mention 2 very special individuals, whom I had the pleasure of talking with a couple of times, and whom have shared with me so many great experiences and ideas for science activities (mostly chemistry, which is only natural for a chemical education conference).

The first is Myra Hauben .
 She is a professor of chemistry who has been going to Cambodia for over a decade. In her travels, she has brought science experimentation to chemistry teachers in Cambodia. Places where they could only talk about experiments, but not perform them. This was due to lack of training, lack of knowledge, lack of equipment, lack of resources. (Her stories of Cambodia echo our work in the Philippines, only the situation in Cambodia is far worse than in the Philippines).

The second is Ann Nalley.
Ann is also a professor of chemistry. She was also the president of the American Chemical Society.
She shared lots and lots of her stories about her chemistry demonstrations as well as the various public events she has held to engage people with chemistry. Her upbeat spirit and amazing ideas were truly inspirational to me.

I could go on an on about the conference, but would rather not. Why read so many words when pictures do a better job. Here's a link to see all the posted pictures from the week long conference.

And I'll finish with one picture from the opening ceremony with Bassam Shakhashiri (another great demonstrator:

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Supporting girls through their exploration of science interest

I just saw Verizon's ad last night. If you haven't, check it out:

( from last night until this morning a few more 100,000's views were added!!!!)

The message is clear. Our words have an impact on our daughters' choices. It shapes the way the perceive themselves, the way they navigate themselves through life.
We should all do our best to nurture the interest of our children (both girls AND boys). To listen to them, to support them in their quest for learning.

A report published earlier this year also looked at the factors that shape girls' attitude towards STEM careers. Their main conclusion was that "the only effective means of increasing the likelihood for girls to consider STEM careers is by engaging them in highly active STEM activities"

Let us nurture dreams, not suppress them.
Not all girls are interested in STEM subject, same as not all boys are.
But for the ones that are, we should not discourage them.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Being Philosophical, Doctor ?

I finally made it.
After 6 years in the works I finally graduated and am now a Doctor of Philosophy.
And what better way to celebrate than being a bit (or maybe more than a bit) philosophical about science.

As a chemist, quantum mechanics is a fundamental building block, and as such Schrödinger's name comes up quite often. But many people who did not study quantum mechanics have still heard the name Schrödinger thanks to a thought experiment which includes a box, radioactive material, a bit of poison and one unsuspecting cat. This humble feline became to be known as Schrödinger's cat.
The idea behind the thought experiment is to explain how quantum mechanics works. I won't go into the thought process in depth (that can be found here) but rather I want to touch on the bottom line of what it tells us. That is - we need to 'change' our system in order to 'observe' what is happening.
In the experiment, the box is closed and we can't tell what is happening inside. To know the fate of the cat, we need to open the lid, thereby changing our system from a 'closed' box to an 'open' box.
This change may seem subtle to most of us. What's the big deal? I "just" opened the lid. (you might say). But in fact, the key point I wish to convey is that the reality of the cat changes once we become part of the system. The cat's probabilistic state (being described by a statistical function of both dead state and living state) is transformed into a single definitive state which is strictly living or (the more unfortunate and bordering animal cruelty) a strictly dead state.

The idea that reality is altered by our presence, or lack of, is not a new concept. Every child starts live accepting reality as only the things which are within their sensory reach. Only at a later state, a child acquires Object permanence which means they know things exists even if they cannot be seen/heard/felt/etc. This means that before reaching this development stage, we accept the fact (and sometimes are not happy about it which makes us cry) that things cease to exist once they are walking out of the room.

Now lets take it one step forward (or backwards, depending on your perspective).

What is the sound of a tree falling in the woods when no one is around?

This is a very old question , for which most people would just assume that the falling tree would sound the same whether there is someone to hear it or not. But is it so? (caution: going on a philosophical rant again)
Let us break down our system. What is sound? a disturbance in the air, propagating in space from its source until it reaches the ear drum. So if that is the case, when there is no ear drum around, all we are left with is a disturbance. It can potentially transform into sound if an ear drum was available, but without one, it is merely a potential sound. 
But, you might say, I can put a microphone and record the sound. So there you go. Sound exists even without the ear being around. However, a microphone is just a "middle-man". The microphone doesn't know its sound. The microphone senses the disturbance and translates it into electricity, storing it temporarily. Only when the recording is played through a speaker, does the electrical information (or magnetic if you want to be nostalgic and use audio cassettes) is transformed into a new air disturbance which reaches the ear. So in effect, the microphone only enables you to store the existence of the disturbance, only to be reenacted at a later time, and most likely in a different place.
The bottom line - no ear to hear - no sound - merely disturbance.

This is parallel to the cat story. Isn't it? Our presence in the system is required to "observe" the existence of a phenomena.

How about vision? Clearly light exist without us being around to see it. Right?

Not so sure.

Let me start by asking a question similar to that of the tree, but this time using vision.

What is the colour of a red chair in dark room?

Did you say without a moment to pause "of course its still red"?
How do you know? What is 'red' anyways?

This is a good point to note that this whole blog has been floating in my mind for the past few months ever since I considered applying for the Flame Challenge, whose current question is "What is Color?" (note the American spelling. Yes, this is an American initiative which I think is absolutely fascinating). When I started looking into what is colour, my first point of reference was that of my chemist training - colour is a wavelength of electromagnetic radiation. 
But electromagnetic radiation doesn't know its red, green, blue or pink. Its just an oscillating field (two fields for that matter, an electric field and a magnetic field). So where does the colour come from? In order to understand colour, we need to consider the entire system.
We have a light source which emits electromagnetic radiation. That radiation hits objects, which then interact with the radiation. The two obvious options for interactions are: absorbing and reflecting (there are more, but lets keep it simple). So, some radiation is absorbed, and will never be seen again. Some is reflected, and if chance would have it, and our eyes are not too far away, then the reflected radiation will hit our eyes. Once inside our eyes, the electromagnetic radiation stimulated our visual nerve system which sends a signals to the brain, which interprets them as colours.

Let me sum it up with less words so the message is clear - Colour is all in our heads!
Same as sound (where the disturbance hits our ear drum, sending signals to the brain which are interpreted as sound), vision and colour is the INTERPRETATION of our brain.

If that is the case, the answer is clear. If our brain is not around, then colour cannot exist.
If we are not there to "observe", if we are outside the system, then we are only left with a 'potential' colour, or a 'potential' sound.

What does that mean? Does that mean that colour is not "real"?
As for the question of "what is real?", I'll leave that for you to think about.

Monday, 3 March 2014

STEM outreach opportunities

Let's assume you are a scientist in Ontario, Canada.
Let's also assume that you think/believe/feel/know that STEM outreach is important and you wish to do something about.

What should you do? Where shall you go? Whom can you work/volunteer with?

If you're looking the answers to any of the questions above, I hope the list below can help you find some opportunities for some great outreaching. The list is in no particular order, and I can't say I have any specific recommendation (disclosure: I am currently engaged with a non-profit but I did try to create an objective complication of STEM outreach organizations)

The list is far from being complete, and will grow with time.
If you know of a STEM outreach organization, send me a message and share with me so I can share it back by adding it to the list.

Academic institutions:
(needles to say that universities are at a perfect position to offer such opporunities)

UofT Engineering Outreach
University of Toronto's Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering's Outreach program offers many opportunities for both boys and girls, young and old (by old I mean high school).

University of Waterloo Engineering Science Quest
Started more than 20 years ago, this program has evolved to include camps and school visits.

Western University's Faculty of Engineering Outreach
Summer camps for the younger kids, summer academy for the older ones and dedicated girl clubs.

McMaster University's Engineering Outreach program
Offering summer camps for children, aboriginal outreach programs and more

There are actually so many universities and colleges across Canada which offer STEM outreach programs that it would be a very long list.
Luckily, Acuta is a charity organization whose members are post-secondary institutions which deliver STEM outreach programs.

Charities/ Non-profits
There are many private organizations, some charitable some non-profits, some working locally in specific communities, some all across Ontario and even across Canada.

Let's Talk Science
A national charity working for just over 20 years all across Canada engaging students and education in STEM programs.

Youth Science Ontario
A non-profit which supports community-based regional science organizations.

Scientists In Schools
A charity working for 25 years in Ontario and Alberta, providing STEM hands-on progrmas

Science Rendezvous
A national annual science festival that takes science out of the lab and into the street.

Pueblo Science
A non-profit providing science summer camp and outreach events to promote STEM learning.

Monday, 24 February 2014

A Spotlight on Science Outreach

Technological innovation keeps on changing every aspect of our everyday experiences. Can you remember the time when there was no Internet or no cell phones? Devices like washing machines and microwave ovens have radically transformed our existence in freeing huge portions of our days. These technological revolutions were made possible by a solid understanding of materials and of natural phenomena. Because each enhancement to our living conditions seems like a small incremental improvement, we now take for granted the results of decades of scientific research in devices such as LCD monitors, ultrasound scanners and LED light bulbs.

Given how profound an impact science makes, how did we end up with kids who grow tired of studying it? Most children rarely get to make the connection between the science they learn in class with the real world they enjoy. It is only rarely that they get the opportunity to go to a science museum or a science camp, which are not affordable to all. Should we take some responsibility for taking all modern advances for granted, or for not publicising the importance of scientific research in new products and new companies that shape our economy? As scientists, have we grown to believe that what we do is too complicated for lay people – or a child – to understand and that we should leave the science teaching to the science teachers in the classrooms?

For all these reasons, and more, we still need to showcase science to the public and explain its primordial importance through science outreach. Pueblo Science, a registered Ontario non-profit, was founded with the belief that delivering the value of science to both young and old, students and teachers, is best done through experimentation. I personally joined the organisation in 2012 with a focus on rural communities, where education is often neglected due to a scarcity of resources. This is true for both developing and developed countries. Since the organisation was created, three trips were made to the Philippines. In each trip, local science teachers gathered in three rural communities to host our travelling volunteers, a large number of whom are UofT alumni and graduate students. Our volunteers delivered a two-day workshop at each site to equip teachers with science experimentation activities for children. Through a clever design and choice of affordable and easily accessible materials, numerous teachers in rural Philippines can now perform science experiments with their students. It is estimated that 17,000 children will be impacted by Pueblo Science's 2013 trip.  

Pueblo Science's effort at raising awareness about the importance of youth science education struck a chord with the ABS-CBN global Philippine TV channel. A recent broadcast featured a volunteer recruitment show held in the UofTs Department of Chemistry on January 27th as well as Pueblos Hart House Family Sunday on January 19, which attracted more than 50 Toronto families 

The Hart House event showcased Chemistry (red cabbage juice as pH indicator), Physics (disappearing glass vial in mineral oil due to refractive index matching), Biology (creating a life scale model of the internal organs of the human body) as well as Engineering (a climbing puppet using friction to produce upwards motion) experiments to elementary and pre-school kids.
Integrating science with a sports event has prove to be another effective strategy at engaging children in science. For example, Pueblo Science's outreach program called Science on Ice has been gaining popularity at school day events in Ontario University Athletics hockey games. The events, in collaboration with the University of Toronto, Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, the Toronto school Boards (TDSB, TCSB) and Waterloo District School Board, gathered around seven thousand students for this year alone. Pueblo Science provided interactive science demo tables and intermission shows for the hockey matches



 One of our explosive intermission shows recently got featured on CTVnews-Kitchener
( ).

Finally we also explored using art to ignite the kids' interest in science through our Painting with Science program. The event was held in collaboration with the Department of Chemistry, Chemclub and  the Institute for Optical Sciences (IOS) at UofT,  during the Culture Days weekend in September 2013. For this event, we chose activities which provided participants the opportunity to learn science while being creative. Dye separation through chromatography, pH indicator changing colours, as well as holograms provided by the IOS, are just a few examples of what numerous GTA families enjoyed.

I would like to finish with words of gratitude. Many of our accomplishments in the past few years would not have happened without the support and assistance we have received from the Chemistry Department, the Institute for Optical Sciences, the Impact Centre and of course all the many wonderful volunteers who have helped to bring science out there.

Our work is only beginning, and we invite you to support and join our fun activities!