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Richard Jung, Victoria Truong and Celina Wang, this year's Let's Talk Science coordinators.

Students build on creativity, passion and leadership skills through volunteer science program

January 13, 2014 — 

Last Halloween, 300 people participated in “Spooky Science,” one of many K-12 events organized by student volunteers who run U of M’s chapter of the national Let’s Talk Science (LTS) program. The 200 kids and 100 adults who showed up for the Harry Potter themed night were lot more than organizers expected.

“It was surprising,” says Celina Wang, a fourth year genetics student who works as an LTS volunteer coordinator. “We sent out emails [promoting the event] to the educators and many responded. We can see the program growing, mostly through word-of-mouth,” she says. Numbers for the second annual “Spooky Science” doubled from last year; the event was held in the Engineering Building on October 26.

“The positive experience results in more positive feedback and more word-of mouth — and so many more people that LTS reaches out to.”

Word-of-mouth brings the program volunteers as well. Last year, Richard Jung heard from friends about the U of M chapter of the not-for-profit organization. Run by university student volunteers, Let’s Talk Science creates and delivers unique, hands-on learning programs for K-12 children and youth through workshops that the volunteers deliver on-site.


He wanted to get involved.

“I always liked science, but I never thought that I would like teaching it,” he says. “That’s partly why I continued [volunteering]. Then I got involved with the All-Science Challenge [an LTS event], which was fabulous. This year, I applied for an LTS coordinator position.”

In fact, the honours biochemistry student enjoyed the teaching aspects of the volunteer position so much that he wants to teach as a career, possibly as a science prof, he says.


Highlights of the program for the volunteer coordinators

For Celina Wang, who also started as a volunteer, it’s been surprising being on the other side of the program — working as a coordinator of other volunteers, which includes liaising with educators and the national organization.

“It was a lot of fun volunteering and getting to promote science outreach to the kids but then it’s another side to be a coordinator and help these volunteers, seeing how passionate they are and dedicated to the program.”

Of the three LTS coordinators (along with three more assistant coordinators), Victoria Truong is the veteran. After being introduced to the program by friends during her student orientation, she started volunteering.

Similar to Jung’s experience, the program allowed her to develop leadership qualities she didn’t know she had. So much so that she applied for one of the coordinator positions — and in 2013, even switched from dentistry to Asper’s commerce stream because she enjoyed the management side of things. She’s now a third year honours commerce student.

A highlight for her was this year’s new “Crazy Cryptography,” a computer science workshop — the first computer science activity for the national LTS organization — developed by volunteers at the U of M. The workshop is one of 24 different LTS workshops, from “Magnet Madness” to “CSI Mystery” to “Sew an E-coli” to “Strawberry DNA Extraction.” Each workshop lasts about an hour.

“Crazy Cryptography teaches the basic tenets of computer science,” explains Truong. “Taking something like a video game and breaking it down into small tasks that are feasible for each individual to do; showing kids that [computer programming is] more of a teamwork challenge. It also shows kids how to code — like a secret message. It gets kids to understand that you need to have [the programming side] of the message to get the other half of the message.”

It’s important, she says, because basic computer programming skills are not emphasized in schools, even though computers are ubiquitous.


What Richard Jung likes best about his LTS experience is that the “students figure stuff out that I would never imagine.”


Jung has also designed a new workshop, a bio-tech kit aimed at Grade 12 students. It teaches participants about gel electrophoresis — separating DNA into its constituent molecules and fragments by running it through an electrical field, an application used in various sciences.

What he likes best about his experience with LTS, he says, is that the “students figure out stuff that I would never imagine.” Every time he teaches one of the workshops, he says, “something unique happens.”

At this year’s All-Science Challenge, there was a workshop in which participants had to build their own robot arm. “None of us could figure it out,” he laughs. “But every group, in about a half hour, built a functional arm!”

“Kids’ imaginations are still really growing — you could see it first-hand at the design challenge. ”

That level of creativity is inspiring.


Victoria Truong: “Our program is really fresh … as students, we make the most of what we have.”


And Jung’s redesign of the workshop is just one example of the dedication and passion shown by the volunteers, says Truong. Volunteers are also responsible to get themselves to the school sites where they deliver the workshops, up to 2 hours away.

Truong says that it’s gratifying to see “the transformation of volunteers” over the school year.

To illustrate her point, she mentions last year’s Volunteer of the Year, a first year university student “who is naturally very soft spoken” — but by the end of her volunteer experience, she was comfortable with public speaking and teaching classrooms of students.

“The program itself pushes you to challenge yourself, and to put yourself into situations you wouldn’t normally put yourself into,” Truong sums up.

And, she adds, “Our program is really fresh. We see an opportunity and jump on it. And sometimes funds are in play, but as students, we make the most of what we have.”


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