Science Rendezvous returns to U of T

Sub-title: 
Welcoming the community to the popular science festival
Author: 
Terry Lavender

Slime, squishy circuits, robots, polar bear cubs and electronic bats. They'll all be there on Saturday, May 10 as the University of Toronto participates in the seventh annual Science Rendezvous event.

Science Rendezvous highlights and promotes science by showcasing the best and most innovative research in Canada. The ultimate goal is improving student enrolment and public investment in science and technology in the future, says Science Rendezvous executive director Kelsey Miller.

“Science Rendezvous offers visitors of all ages a chance to meet with world-class researchers, conduct experiments, and above all, a chance to have fun while discovering science in a whole new way,” Miller says, noting that it is always scheduled for the day before Mother's Day, to place an emphasis on the importance of women in science.

The St. George campus will host a street carnival, a science chase and lab tours, say U of T Science Rendezvous co-chairs Jessica Sonnenberg and Olivia Podolak. Activities take place from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. This year’s theme is busting common science myths and misconceptions, Sonnenberg says.

University of Toronto Scarborough is also taking part. UTSC student volunteers will lead activities and displays at the Toronto Zoo from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., to encourage Zoo visitors to think about what makes animals so amazing and unique through the prism of science, says organizer Andrew Peters, a UTSC biological sciences grad student. Many of the activities involve migratory birds, since Science Rendezvous coincides with Migratory Bird Day this year, but other zoo inhabitants, including a polar bear family, will also be taking part.

Science Rendezvous began at U of T seven years ago at the instigation of Chemistry and Biological Physics professor Dwayne Miller and has since spread across the country. This year 80 organizations are involved with 300 events scheduled in 30 cities.

“Everyone is born a scientist,” Professor Miller told U of T News in 2012. “You’re naturally curious. Somewhere in our education system we beat it out of them. So the idea is to bring back the curiosity that people have and give them a venue to ask their questions and talk to real scientists. I thought it was really important to see what kind of science is going on in their backyards. It’s Canadian and we should celebrate that. The other really important feature is to attract the best and brightest in science.”

U of T News asked Sonnenberg and Podolak about this year’s Science Rendezvous and what visitors to the St. George campus can expect.

What’s happening at Science Rendezvous at U of T this year?
This year, we chose to focus on busting common science myths and illuminating little-known science facts. We have arranged for every department to bring forth a misconception or interesting fact about their field so that attendees can bust these myths one by one for a chance to win a prize. U of T St. George's site is, as far as we know, the first and only site to implement an overarching theme to unify our exhibits.

Another event that we are really trying to promote this year is our Science Chase. Science Chase is very similar to the Amazing Race TV show, where participants will be required to complete a series of scientific challenges in a race against the clock. This year's story line has our participants acting as aliens who have landed on planet Earth and will participate in activities to teach them about humans' way of life.

What are you personally looking forward to at Science Rendezvous?
Olivia: I'm not sure what I'm most looking forward to since there's always so much going on at the event! I guess I'm most looking forward to seeing the final product after months of the hard work put in by our executive team and all of the participating departments.

Jessica: I would have to agree with Olivia on that one -- seeing the end product (an amazingly successful event, of course) is one of my favourite parts. My other favourite is first thing in the morning, when everyone is just finishing setting up and the first few kids come running onto the site - I love the excited look on their faces.

Who comes out to Science Rendezvous?
Olivia and Jessica: Last year, we had approximately 10,000 visitors come by our festival. The visitors ranged anywhere from university professors to young children being pushed around in strollers by their parents. It's an all-ages festival meant to shape the minds of Canada's youth, while increasing the public’s involvement in the world-class research that is happening right here at home, so everyone is welcome to come. We train our volunteers to run their exhibits in ways that can be tailored to visitors' level of expertise in the area, as to maximize the amount of learning that goes on.

How many volunteers are involved? What do they do?
Jessica and Olivia: Typically, we have just over 500 volunteers participate in our event. The volunteers are either departmental (i.e., hired by the department to run department-specific demonstrations) or general. The general volunteers help run the show by offering support to the departments, or by manning the general demonstrations or booths, such as first aid stations, face painting stations, freezing flowers with liquid nitrogen (and having kids smash them after!), promoting the event in Toronto by handing out balloons and brochures, etc. The volunteers consist of professors, graduate students, undergraduate students, and even some very keen high school students. (Pictured above: chemistry students create ice cream using liquid nitrogen.)

How did you personally get involved in Science Rendezvous?
Olivia: I first got involved as a general volunteer. I was an undergrad student at McMaster, but since they didn't host Science Rendezvous, I would commute to the St. George campus to participate instead. When I came to U of T to do my Master's, I wanted to get more heavily involved, especially in the organization of the festival, so I took on the role of executive volunteer coordinator. Based on my work last year, I was hired as co-chair with Jessica!

Jessica: I took a bit of a different, less logical path with Science Rendezvous. I was a member of an organization called ChemClub in my first year of grad school, and one of their roles in the Chemistry department is to organize the Chemistry pavilion at UofT. I signed up to co-organize the event with an SR veteran that year and loved it so much I became the head organizer for Chemistry in my second and third years. This year I decided I wanted to try something new with a bit more responsibility so I applied for the co-chair position at U of T.

What makes you passionate about science?
Olivia: I am constantly curious about the world we live in. The fact that there is so much to explore in the natural world is both inspiring and a little daunting, which I think ultimately fuels my passion to learn more. 

Jessica: To be honest, I think my brain is hardwired that way - when I look at the world all I see is questions, and constantly looking for more answers is what drives me. I find science beautiful and terrifying, exhilarating and frustrating, logical and confusing, and ultimately, that's what I love about it!

What's your own area of research?
Olivia: I'm doing my PhD in psychology. I investigate how musical training and exposure fine-tunes certain brain processes. More specifically, I'm studying the psychological mechanisms that allow musicians to read music.

Jessica: I am just finishing up my PhD in inorganic chemistry. For my research I focus on developing more sustainable catalysts for use by the pharmaceutical industry. Specifically, I am looking at iron catalysts to potentially replace toxic and expensive precious metal catalysts.

For more information about Science Rendezvous activities on the St. George campus, visit the Science Rendezvous website at sr.escalator.utoronto.ca, or view the event map. Information about activities at the Toronto Zoo can be found at http://torontozoo.com/events/. The Science Rendezvous main website is at http://www.sciencerendezvous.ca.