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Andrei Caymo, a fourth-year Microbiology student and Let’s Talk Science Site Coordinator, uses a costume to engage his studentsHandout

Michael Marti is a Marketing Officer at Let’s Talk Science

Let’s Talk Science and the Royal Society of Canada have partnered to provide Globe and Mail readers with relevant coverage about issues that affect us all – from education to the impact of leading-edge scientific discoveries.

On a dreary October afternoon, Andrei Caymo, a fourth-year Microbiology student and Let’s Talk Science Site Coordinator at the University of Manitoba, pops open his laptop and awaits another Zoom Outreach event.

The difference between Andrei and many others about to hop on a virtual call is his outfit. Dressed up as a vampire, complete with a long cape and shiny medallion, Andrei is getting ready to engage students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) learning during a special Halloween-themed event.

“I find that costumes help kids stay focused, especially with younger children; their attention span is so short,” said Andrei. “You need to be exaggerated and animated when you engage with them.”

Discovering Innovation, Amongst the Challenges

Andrei is a volunteer for Let’s Talk Science Outreach, one of many organizations that have moved to virtual programming through the pandemic.

For many volunteers, educators and parents across the country, keeping kids focused and engaged in online learning has been a struggle. At the same time, programs have found innovative ways to connect with kids despite the challenges.

Not only have they faced technological struggles of faulty internet and bad video call connections, but they have had to learn to make connections in an environment in which they can’t engage one-on-one with students. Imagine performing for an audience you can’t see? How do you read the crowd? Gauge their interest? Or even tell how well your session is going when you can’t see their faces for their response?

But, while the challenges have been numerous, virtual learning opportunities have adapted and thrived. At Let’s Talk Science, virtual outreach has enabled volunteers to develop new ways to engage students, reach remote communities across the country and brainstorm events designed for every student.

“It allowed us to go out of our comfort zone,” said Mika Pineda, a fifth-year psychology student and Let’s Talk Science site coordinator at the University of Manitoba. “As we slowly made sense of our new normal, we learned to adapt.”

For the Let’s Talk Science volunteers from 52 post-secondary sites across Canada, the key has been learning to use a variety of approaches to reach youth of all ages.

Virtual Events Showcase STEM Role Models

Perhaps one of the great outcomes of virtual programming has been the ability to expand the reach of activities and, in the case of Let’s Talk Science, share the inclusivity of STEM. For example, Let’s Talk Science’s virtual symposiums connect youth in high school to amazing role models including leading researchers and post-secondary volunteers to discuss the impact of their research and pathway to their current careers. The Let’s Talk Sports symposium, hosted by Ryerson University (also known as X university, renaming in process) explored diversity and inclusivity surrounding race and gender in sports. And more recently, the University of Guelph hosted a Women in STEM career panel, with women who have had success in STEM and sharing how they got there.

“Breaking down the barriers, with women in STEM and in other communities where they don’t see STEM as something that they can do, that’s one thing that keeps me going,” said Mika. “It motivates me to deliver more workshops, offer more creative and different programming, and reach out to more communities who don’t have easy access to STEM-related programming or education.”

While these would once have been regionally accessible in-person events, the virtual format allowed youth from across Canada to participate. Through their participation, they were exposed to diverse role models and built awareness of the opportunities ahead of them regardless of their location or background. The volunteers involved play an important role in providing access to STEM learning, and they are vital as positive role models to the youth they encounter.

A Virtual Love for Volunteering

Despite the obstacles posed by the pandemic, both Andrei and Mika have enjoyed their time volunteering and have received positive feedback.

“The emails are something that keep us going, honestly, especially throughout the pandemic,” said Mika. “Sometimes the students, after the workshop, go in front of the camera and thank us. It’s just nice to see their very excited faces.”

Simply put, volunteering – even in a virtual world - has helped Andrei and Mika develop a love for teaching STEM and transmitting information about their passions, despite the challenges.

And as they get more and more creative in engaging youth virtually, vampire costumes and all, one idea keeps Mika motivated and energized. “I always tell myself, if I can get at least one student to be more interested in STEM, then I’m good with that.”