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To boldly go where no chemical

By Pamela Gill

Dr. Geoff Rayner-Canham of the Chemistry Department at Grenfell College and his student colleagues have returned from another pair of successful chemistry outreach “expeditions,” taking the presentations further east and further west than ever before.

The first outreach was a road trip with Natalie Alteen, an Environmental Science student, to the schools on the central south coast of Newfoundland at Milltown, English Harbour West, Harbour Breton, and the Mi’kmaq community of Conne River. Ms. Alteen was primarily responsible for setting up and performing the live demonstrations, together with answering student’s questions about life at university.

The longer outreach was to Labrador and the Quebec lower-north-shore. In the previous tours, Dr. Rayner-Canham had only visited the Anglophone schools on the Quebec coast. This time, he and Ms. Alteen were accompanied by Laura Penney, a student currently completing the MUN Primary/Elementary Education program. Ms. Penney is a chemistry enthusiast and she also possesses a degree in French from Université Laval. It was her task to give the presentation in French at the Francophone schools.

The program is funded by the National Science and Engineering Research Council as part of their PromoScience initiative to “turn students on” to science.
During his years at Corner Brook, Dr. Rayner-Canham has become increasingly concerned about science-talented students who live in remote communities where chemistry is not taught or only available through the on-line courses. By focussing on the fascination of chemistry, Dr. Rayner-Canham and his team hope to excite students about the science and make them aware of the many career possibilities if they take chemistry courses.

The team commence their presentation with live and video demonstrations of new materials and their uses, then they introduce the periodic table and show the importance of some of the elements. It is the next segment that usually produces the greatest audience response, that of demonstrations of water-hating and water-loving materials. Then they introduce examples of the chemistry of cosmetics and of common foods. The chemistry of polymers makes up the last demonstrations of the program, followed by a brief review of careers that require some chemistry. The level of the explanations is adapted to the age range of the student group.

For the tour this year, the team drove with their chemical supplies and equipment to Sandy Cove, Newfoundland, where their charter aircraft and pilot awaited them. From Sandy Cove they flew to their first Labrador stop, Makkovik, their boxes of supplies being transported from the airstrip to the community in part by pick-up truck, then by komatik trailer behind a snowmobile. From Makkovik they travelled to Nain, another of the Inuit communities on the north-east coast. The plane then took them to Goose Bay where they rented a van to visit the school at North West River and the Innu school at Sheshatshiu.

Their first stop in Quebec was at the Montagnais community of La Romaine where Ms. Penney gave the presentations in French at both the senior and junior schools. From there they flew to the St. Augustine airstrip. With the beginning of the break-up of ice on the river, they had to cross by air boat to the Anglophone community of St. Augustine, completing the journey from the river bank to the school on a trailer pulled by an ATV. Then it was another journey by snowmobile and komatik where Ms. Penney led the presentation at the Francophone Montagnais school in nearby Pakuashipi. Their final stop was at the large Francophone community of Blanc Sablon on the Labrador border.

Up until then, their flights had been in a twin-engine Britten-Norman Twin Islander, a very short take-off-and-landing plane more commonly found in the Caribbean. Though quite slow, the four-seater, with its large cargo space for the chemistry show equipment and reagents, and balloon tires for landing on soft and rough surfaces, has proved ideal for these flights. For the last leg of the air journey, back from Forteau, Labrador to Sandy Cove, the charter company provided a single-engine Beaver, one of the Canadian-built workhorses of the north.

As in previous voyages, the students were spellbound by the demonstrations and the accompanying explanations. Dr. Rayner-Canham added: “All three of us were blown away by the enthusiasm of the students. We are convinced we really have made a difference to many students’ lives. We know of students who saw our previous tours who have chosen careers in chemistry and biochemistry as a result of our demonstrations. For the many who won’t, we are convinced that we have provided stimulation which will lead them to goals beyond their previous boundaries. And we were especially thrilled by the very positive responses in the aboriginal communities.”