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Chasing Ice (aka Do What You Want with Your Grad Degree)

27 Nov

Last weekend there was a free screening of James Balog‘s film “Chasing Ice” here in Vancouver, organized by SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement and the Environmental Youth Alliance. I only just read about James’ project in National Geographic’s 125th Year Special Photo Issue last week (lucky!), so this movie immediately went into the Saturday night spot in my calendar.

The movie focuses on the Extreme Ice Survey project that James started. The idea is to document the changing glacier landscape using time-lapse photographs. While the idea seems simple enough, the execution is hardly the case. Just imagine carrying all the camera gears, some of which you have to build yourself because they don’t exist yet (not built for extreme weathers or long duration without care), climbing hours in -40C weather, and checking regularly to make sure the cameras are taking photos instead of being knocked down by falling rocks or having their wires chewed up by wolves. They also lost the first few months because of malfunction timers, so they ended up making a few extra trips in order to replace all the timers. This is not to mention James had several knee surgeries done in order to complete the project.

Yup, that’s what they did.

But the results were astounding. While you might not understand statistics or mathematical models, one thing you can clearly learn from his photos is that our climate is changing, the glaciers are disappearing, and at once we can really grasp what climate change means. All that ice must be going somewhere? And that is a consequence we can envision.

Through nearly a million time-lapse photographs, we now have indisputable, gut-wrenching proof that ancient glaciers are disappearing…The photographs show glaciers breaking apart and melting faster than we had imagined.

– James Balog, National Geographic

Interestingly, James actually has a background in research, with a graduate degree in geography and geomorphology. He admitted in the movie that he was not so keen on the numbers and statistics associated with research work. However, it appears that he developed photography skills while he was working on his master’s degree, and eventually found passion in documenting humans’ interaction with the natural world. To me, it is clear that his research background supplemented him tremendously in his photography work as well as the Extreme Ice Project, making his photography a work of art and science.

In fact, his story is familiar one for me. When I was working on my PhD, I found myself drawn to chatting with and writing to people about science instead of my *actual* research work. In fact, it was during this time that I got better with writing grant applications, editing people’s work, and planning outreach events. It took a while for me to make up my mind not to stay in research, by which time I was already half way into an expedited PhD program and finished my comprehensive exam. I then did something unthinkable (my boyfriend at the time went “you did WHAT?”). I called my supervisor and transferred myself out of the PhD program to complete with a master’s instead.

Do I ever regret it? Maybe a tiny bit, once in a while, when many of my friends from graduate school are now being called Doctors. But that regret goes away oh so quickly because I love my job so much, and I know that for some friends, I have the dream job that they want. I could not imagine what would have happened if I didn’t take that step to do something about it.

My point is – regardless of whether you are working on your master’s degree or your PhD, your life is really, well, your life. While there are many talks about the lack of academic positions for the number of graduate students we are training, or whether going to grad school is worth the time and the money, perhaps ask these questions instead: Do I really need a PhD to do this? Do I really want an academic career? Can the skills I develop during grad school help me do something I love? And, don’t doubt the value of what others might consider “lost years” if you don’t end up with an academic career. James got really good with photography, and I had plenty of opportunities to work on my writing and event planning, all during graduate school. In fact, now that I think about it, there is so much flexibility in graduate school that it probably is the best chance to spare some time and  do something you love.

I remember talking to my mom about the decision to get out of PhD in one of those sleepless nights, and my mom said,

“Theresa, life is too short, so do what you want.”

I guess that is why James Balog was chasing ice, and I am now writing/talking science. That’s why we don’t let our degrees define what we want our lives to be.

On the topic of making your life an adventure, check out Terry McGlynn’s great post On creating your own path through life. And, regardless what your attitude toward climate change is, I highly recommend that you check out Chasing Ice. For the story, for the striking imagery, and for potentially the last evidence of our glacier that might disappear in our life time.


When Our Toys Tell Kids Who They Should Be – on Gender Stereotypes and Gender-segregated Toys

15 Nov

I passed by these sticker books in Chapters some time in the summer, and the idea of them upset me. Check out the product description and photos of these sticker books (close the pop-up and scroll down).


If I had a child

I would rip these covers off

So that boys could write poetry, learn about fashion, and try out acting on stage

And girls could play with insects, go camping, and make their robots

And then I would tell my child

“You can play with anything you want

Because Mommy loves you no matter what”

(okay, perhaps I would also rip out the pages on fairies…)

It seems that I am not the only one uncomfortable with the gender stereotype that boys should play with insects and go camping, and girls should write poetry and act on stage. Check out this blog posts: This isn’t just any children’s sticker book…this is a sexist M&S sticker book by Meg Pickard.

Furthermore, it seems that “gender-segregated toys” sell much better. Lego Friends, meant to target girls, turned out to be one of the biggest success for the company.  Listen/Read Girls’ Legos Are A Hit, But Why Do Girls Need Special Legos? by NPR. And note that Kinder Surprise is also going for it. I, for one, was personally offended by the following commercial:

(“For showing off”?? And, not that I don’t enjoy dressing up – I actually do read fashion magazines – but is that a girl only thing? What if I want to build robots? Which I certainly did when I was little.)

Read Melissa Carr’s post Why New Pink Kinder Surprise Pisses Me Off, and also the post Why do parents buy into gender segregated toys? by Reel Girl.

And that is why while I know that something like Goldieblox, engineering toys for girls, would be popular, and that a swarm of parents would go for it, something doesn’t sit right with me. In one of the workshops that I was involved in running, girls had so much fun playing with circuit boards and wires and lasers (they were building a laser detector) – none of the parts were coloured pink and made with ribbons. They were the exact same electronic parts that we used for workshops with boys. Read Spydergrrl’s post Why I Won’t Be Buying Gender-Segregating Toys Like Goldieblox and Lego Friends. (Updated Nov 18, 2013) And definitely read about Jamie Davis Smith’s personal experience in Getting Over Goldie Blox.

I should mention that I grew up loving both Lego bricks and Barbie dolls. My parents never told me to play with one or the other.

And my Lego bricks were not in pink.

How Accessible Is Our Science?

21 Oct

September 28 and 29 were two very busy days for me. One reason being that I managed to complete a 9K obstacle charity run called the Concrete Hero Challenge (trust me, falling into water from the monkey bars on a rainy Vancouver day was NOT FUN). The other being that my department’s outreach program participated in the 2nd Annual Community Science Celebration at the Vancouver Telus World of Science.

What’s so special about the community science celebration? The biggest draw – free admission. Over the weekend, more than 20,000 people visited the Science World, many were parents with their kids. I, together with my supervisors and volunteers, were all extremely impressed by the enthusiasm Vancouver has for science. I admit that every time I help organize a public science event, the biggest fear has been that nobody would show up, but  the fear has always been proven unnecessary – it feels like Vancouver is the place to be for science.

People lining up around the block in the rain, waiting to enter the Science World.

People lining up around the block in the rain, waiting to enter the Science World.

Now, this is supposed to make be really happy, and it did for a few days – until I realized how much the admission rates for the Science World are.

Public Adult $22.50
Public Child $15.25
Public Senior/Student $18.50
Public Youth $18.50

This means that for a non-member family of four, it costs  $75.50 to visit the Science World once (1 year membership for a family is $185 – still pretty pricey). If we include the cost of of transportation (public transit or parking/gasoline) and eating out, it can cost more than $100 for a family to visit the Science World once. No wonder people were lining up around the block to get into the Science World on a free-admission day*.

I took the liberty to survey the admission rates of Science Museums/Centres in Canada (for adults):

Centre Admission rates Note
Vancouver Aquarium $25.00
Vancouver Macmillan Space Centre $18.00 evening rate $13.00
Edmonton Telus World of Science $16.95
Ontario Science Centre $22.00 low income community access available
Saskatchewan Science Centre $9.00
Telus Spark (Calgary)  $19.95

Now let’s look at the situation internationally. Quickly browsing the websites of several major US Science Education Centres, I found that the prices are in about the same range (e.g., the American Museum of Natural History at $22 USD, the Exploratorium at $25 USD). For Taiwan’s National Museum of Natural Science, which inspired me to be curious about science when I grew up, it costs less than $4.00 to access all the exhibition halls. This place is also massive – with 5 complexes, occupying 9 hectares of land. For the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum in London, UK (or for that matter, many major museums in London), it is free admission. When I tweeted about the cost of visiting science museums, my friends commented:

Perhaps simply my speculation, but I wonder what this says about how accessible science is to a population, and whether that affects people’s perception of science?

If we look at the bigger picture, beyond just the science centres, and shift our focus to other science outreach activities:

How accessible is our science? Are there things we can do to make science truly accessible regardless of background or income? Is science literacy really just about better science education and communication?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this…

* By no means am I considering this the fault of science centres. Truth is that running a science centre costs money – it is incredibly awesome that Vancouver Science World has this community celebration day for everyone to visit! My concern is more on the price tag of accessing science, and whether we (as a whole) can be doing more to support places such as the Science World.

Pokemon + Biodiversity = the Phylo Card Game

25 Jul

For someone whose blog name was inspired by a Pokemon catchphrase, I am attracted to all things science & Pokemon. It therefore feels like my duty to talk about the Phylo card game. Even more importantly, there is a little back story here.

When I was still a graduate student, I spent a lot of time doing science outreach. One time, I attended an outreach workshop organized by the UBC Let’s Talk Science Partnership Program. This particularly workshop was led by David Ng, Director and Senior Instructor of the UBC  Advanced Molecular Biology Laboratory. Unfortunately, I don’t remember much from that workshop (sorry Dave!). But, one thing he talked about did stick with me. He mentioned a letter by Andrew Balmford and colleagues (you can read the excerpt here), who found that kids in UK could identify Pokemons (which are really just artificial “species”) better than identifying common wild life organisms. So – can we learn from this and come up with something that would help them discover real species and learn their names?

Little did I know back then, that this would soon be a new initiative led by David, and became a real game: Phylo, the trading card game. The game is much like the typical Pokemon trading card game you see kids play. The main difference? All the organisms on the cards are real. This is also an interesting artistic collaboration – there are some amazing art works done for the cards by many artists. Each card comes with the organism’s common name and Latin name, evolutionary tree info, key words, and more. If you browse the cards online, you can also read a bit more about each species.


What a Phylo card looks like. For more info visit:

The Phylo game is an open access project – you can download the card deck online for free (!!) and print the cards on card stock. There are also special decks put together by the London’s Natural History Museum and the 2012 World Science Festival. If you are in Vancouver, the UBC Beaty Biodiversity Museum now produces  professionally printed starter deck with organisms featured at the museum, for sale at the Museum Gift Shop for $12.99. Proceeds from the sale will go to outreach and education activities at the museum. Online sale is currently not available, but you can sign up online to receive an email when online sale begins. Or, you can just download this starter deck here.

This touches on something else about science communication – how many other mainstream, unconventional ideas haven’t we tapped into for science communication and education? Something to think about…


Sockeye Salmon

The thrill of DIY electronics

23 Jun

Our summer camp program will begin in about two weeks. This is the time we  start looking at empty spots in our schedule and thinking about what we can do with them. One thing that is still missing is an electronics activity for our Grade 8-10 kids.

Now, while I have worked in the Department of Physics & Astronomy for almost 5 years, the last time I took a physics course was in first year undergrad. So the memory of how electronics work is a vague one. This is a pity because we have so many cool things in the department (3D print, water jet cutter, machine shop, you name it) – I just had no time. BUT this is work, right? So I sat down and started working on it.

Originally my coop student came up with a light-sensing electrical fans. “eh…kinda boring,” I said (I know, I was harsh haha). “What about something that moves?” “Like a car? Can these motors do that?” This went on for a while, and I started putting things on the breadboard, occasionally not knowing what the components are doing (“eh, what’s a mosfet?”). But I was pretty determined. I broke a LED and a light sensor in the process (“I smell something burning…”), but luckily my coop student figured it out for me 😉

Anyways, this is what we ended up putting together! It’s a light sensing car: the switches control whether you want it to be in the light sensing mode or not. And when there is no light, it stops running but turns on the LED light.

(I don’t have a video of it running because it was too hard to film that in my office, but it does work really well. Also, it is not a solar-powered car – I don’t think the power input would have been enough, plus the car is too heavy, but maybe we will try that later on)

The circuit is messy at the moment, so he is working on cleaning up the circuit, perhaps changing the switch to something smaller/simpler. Once we finish, we plan to put the instructions up on Instructables. Of course, the camp kids will be able to build these cars during the camp.

But, the really cool thing is that we put this together!! This is so exciting – I guess this is why many people are behind the Maker movement. I also told my coop student that I will brag about it for another few weeks. Haha.


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