Outreach program ends after 11 years on the road — and air — in rural NL
© Photo courtesy Dr. Geoff Rayner-Canham
Dr. Geoff Rayner-Canham (right) and Ms. Tanika Chaisson prepare to board their charter plane for the flight from Postville to Black Tickle-Domino for the next stop-over of the chemistry outreach tour.
It has been a rewarding and successful 11-year run for a program that got kids excited about chemistry.
But that program came to an end last week, with travel challenges and end of grant funding noted as the demise of the Grenfell Chemistry Outreach Program.
Dr. Geoff Rayner-Canham and his team of chemistry student colleagues at the Grenfell Campus of Memorial University have been taking the world of chemistry to remote schools throughout Labrador and the island portion of the province.
“The outreach would have been impossible without the six chemistry student volunteers,” said Dr. Rayner-Canham. “They have been the key to the success of the program, interacting with the grade school children, and never complaining of the gruelling hectic schedule.”
The first undergraduate student colleague was Ms. Christina Smeaton (now Dr. Smeaton), then in turn, Ms. Amy Snook, Ms. Tonia Churchill, Ms. Natalie Alteen, Ms. Laura Griffin, and Ms. Tanika Chaisson.
On this final tour, the team of Dr. Rayner-Canham and Chaisson visited the Labrador schools in Natuashish, Makkovik, Postville, Black Tickle-Domino, Mary’s Harbour, and St. Lewis.
“Labradorians are wonderful people,” said Dr. Rayner-Canham, who was saddened by the end of the program.
“I swear Labrador is like a virus — once you get it, you always want to go back!”
Dr. Rayner-Canham and his team had visited — at least once – 19 schools in Labrador, 12 schools on the lower-north-shore of Quebec, 32 schools in rural Newfoundland, and seven schools in Nunavut.
His initial reasoning for starting such a program, he said, was to make chemistry something ‘that excites people.’
“We started with an on-campus chemistry show 20+ years ago,” recalled Dr. Rayner-Canham.
“I thought it would be nice to include Labrador students, so I basically bought some (airline) tickets, contacted some schools to ask if they would be interested in having us come, and they all said, ‘Yes, please!””
Dr. Rayner-Canham said the need for such a program is greatest in rural areas of the province, where the opportunity to take such programs in junior high and high school are not as available as in larger, more urban centres.
“We obtained a grant from the federal government to do this, and put together a 50-minute show, to make chemistry come alive for students.”
The emphasis was on the chemistry of new materials, on everyday chemistry, on consumer chemistry, and on environmental chemistry. Most of the funding came from the Federal Government PromoScience program, together with support funding from the Grenfell Campus of Memorial University. For the Nunavut schools, part of the funding came from Nunavut organizations.
“The outreach focussed on making chemistry relevant to students’ lives and on trying to overcome the perception that chemistry is ‘explosions in laboratories,’” noted Dr. Rayner-Canham.
Recognition for the outreach has been both regional and national, with the Atlantic Provinces Science Communication Award in 2005, and the National Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada Science Promotion Award in 2011.
Dr. Rayner-Canham said the program was really rewarding and the response from schools, the enthusiasm from the students and the hospitality shown to his team over the last 11 years has been remarakable.
“One student in particular — Cindy Penney of Post Hope Simpson — actually went on to graduate work in biochemistry at MUN,” said Dr. Rayner-Canham, proudly.
According to Dr. Rayner-Canham, it was becoming increasingly difficult to find a small charter plane suitable for travel to the north coast.
“The aircraft we have been travelling on is getting older, with the last plane being 44 years old,” said Dr. Rayner-Canham.
“The young women who have accompanied me to Labrador have been very brave, and so good with the program.”
Despite the end of the outreach, Dr. Rayner-Canham said he has not totally given up on reaching out to those who may want to pursue more learning in the chemistry field.
Since 2012, he and a colleague, Debra Wheeler, have been offering a basic chemistry course on-line, that anyone can sign up for.
The course was offered in the winter of 2012, the fall and winter of 2013, and will be re-offered in the winter of 2015.
“The only requirement for the course is that the applicant be finished high school,” said Dr. Rayner-Canham.
“It is a one-semester course that you would register for on-line on the MUN Distance Education website.”
The course costs just $80 for the lab kit which is sent directly to the student’s home, plus the course fee itself.
“Anyone in the community can sign up, there is zero background needed,” said Dr. Rayner-Canham. “We have found the success rate is tremendous and people who stick with it generally do very well.”