Let’s Talk Science: 25 years of engaging youth...and shaping great communicators
Curtis McCloskey laughs when he recalls his former fear of speaking in public.
“No one’s listening to your message when they’re focused on your trembling voice,” says the uOttawa Faculty of Medicine PhD student. “I can honestly say I was a terrible public speaker, very nervous to stand up in front of a room.”
Self-assurance when addressing groups is a skill McCloskey has since mastered thanks in large part to his years volunteering for Let’s Talk Science. For many students like him, it has been a staple program for personal and professional growth.
Begun at Western University, the now-national science outreach program was launched at the u Ottawa Faculty of Medicine in the spring of 1993 by Dr. Barbara Vanderhyden, a distinguished professor in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine (CMM). She established the uOttawa arm with the goal of helping students in the STEM fields improve their communication and teaching skills.
Twenty-five years later, more than 1,500 Let’s Talk Science volunteers from uOttawa, and countless more from across Canada, have visited kindergarten, primary and high school classrooms all over the country engaging youth in fun and interactive science activities.
“I was surrounded by some of the brightest minds, but many of them had such a hard time communicating and sharing their ideas in ways that the public could understand,” says Dr. Vanderhyden. “Encouraging students to practice sharing science with youth was a win-win for all.”
“Not only does the program teach kids about science from trusted university sources, but the hope is that they may appreciate the importance of science in their everyday lives - and it may even inspire them to enter the profession themselves,” adds Dr. Vanderhyden.
The uOttawa arm of Let’s Talk Science provides teaching opportunities for graduate students in the Faculty of Medicine and other faculties. Since many STEM careers in academia and industry benefit from having teaching and leadership skills, McCloskey says, it’s important to seize all volunteer opportunities during graduate school.
“Teaching kids really prepares you for public speaking and explaining complex science in basic terms to any age group,” he explains. “Having practice at answering questions, particularly some of the funny questions that come out of left field from younger kids, will rapidly improve your comfort in front of an academic audience, as well as the quality of your teaching.”
Marie-Ève Wedge, a Let’s Talk Science volunteer and PhD student researching oncolytic viruses in the treatment of pancreatic cancer, echoes McCloskey’s sentiments.
“The program has helped me practice my English (my first language is French), to be more at ease when presenting to an audience, and to tailor my presentations to different audiences,” she says. “It’s also allowed me to become a leader and a mentor.”
Between his time researching the risk factors for ovarian cancer at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and CMM, McCloskey is a popular Let’s Talk Science volunteer, and has won a Let’s Talk Science National Volunteer Award for his efforts in developing activity kits, mentorship programs, workshops and career panels. His leadership roles in the program helped land him the prestigious Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship.
Let’s Talk Science volunteers from Ottawa have won 24 national awards and recognitions in the past decade, and the program itself has earned many national awards for its hands-on, interactive and in-person approach.
“Our activities don’t just teach principles of science to kids—they promote group work and collaboration, essential skills for tomorrow’s scientists,” McCloskey says.
Let’s Talk Science is leading the way in helping Canada educate its public on matters of science and the importance of solid and well-funded research.
“I credit Let’s Talk Science for helping me stay inspired throughout grad school," says McCloskey, “but more importantly, for giving me confidence in public speaking, and enabling me to share my passion for STEM with the next generation of students.”
Main photo credit: Celia Orteg