Urban and rural youth get a chance to become environmental scientists

The Faculties of Science & Engineering and Education at York University are teaming up to provide Grade 8 elementary students from the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) with an opportunity to work alongside leading scientists and their research teams at a summer science camp. The Urban & Rural Youth as Environmental Scientists Program is a joint initiative of York University, Seneca College of Applied Arts & Technology and two participating school boards – Toronto Catholic District School Board and Simcoe County District School Board.

Right: GTA elementary students participating in activities during the 2007 Urban & Rural Youth as Environmental Scientists Program

This opportunity marks the second year the camp has offered elementary school students a venue to learn more about ecology and environmental studies in a university setting. The Urban & Rural Youth as Environmental Scientists Program combines inquiry with lectures, demonstrations and hands-on investigations in a fun summer camp setting. "The goal is to excite them [elementary students] about the possibilities within science and technology for understanding and changing our world, while showing them that university and college programs are within their reach," says Paula Wilson, associate dean, Faculty of Science & Engineering.

"We’re collaboratively designing all the learning activities to promote student interest in urban and rural environments, and promote different ways in which we can understand these interconnected settings and act to secure their future," adds Professor Steve Alsop of York’s Faculty of Education.

At the end of this month, 24 Grade 8 students from schools in the Toronto Catholic District School Board and the Simcoe County District School Board will spend three days at Seneca College’s King campus and three days at York University’s Keele campus. While at both campuses, the students will explore, with leading scholars from York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering, topics like water health and quality, invasive species, and stresses on plant and animal populations in both rural and urban landscapes. They also will document their experiences through the creation of photojournals, which they will then share with their own school communities during follow-up activities at their home schools.

Students who demonstrate a keen interest in science while at the camp will also have an additional opportunity to participate in a four-day mentored placement when they enter Grade 9. During the placement, they will work alongside a York scientist in a laboratory setting. "York faculty members in science and engineering are recognized experts in their fields and are keen to be involved," says Wilson. "Many of the faculty members are returning for the second year of the program."

York biology Professor Bridget Stutchbury, a well-known expert in behavioural and conservation ecology of birds, is one of the many York faculty involved in the program. "For me it’s a great opportunity to mentor young people and encourage them to pursue careers in science," she says.

Stutchbury will take the students out into the field to observe birds in their natural habitat. Then they will head back into a lab at York’s Keele campus where the students will explore how DNA fingerprinting has been pivotal in helping scientists understand bird behaviour and develop conservation techniques. The students will even get the chance to do hands-on DNA manipulation.

"Kids this age are interested in the environment and conservation," says Stutchbury. "They also watch television shows like CSI, so combining field work with high-tech tools will be very appealing to them."

The Urban & Rural Youth as Environmental Scientists Program is one of 41 projects receiving a total investment of $5 million over three years under the Ontario government’s Youth Science & Technology Outreach Program. Through the outreach program, the government funds youth-based science awareness in diverse fields such as robotics, life sciences, environmental science, engineering and theoretical physics.

For more information on the Urban & Rural Youth as Environment Scientists Program, contact Paula Wilson at pjwilson@yorku.ca, or Steve Alsop at salsop@edu.yorku.ca.