“To boldly go where no chemical educator has gone before” is the motto of Dr. Geoff Rayner-Canham of Grenfell College’s Division of Science.
Each spring Dr. Rayner-Canham, who teaches courses for both the general science and environmental science degrees at Grenfell, lives up to his goal, taking the excitement of chemistry to ever more remote communities. This year has been no exception.
The events started with the Chemistry is Everywhere! Show, on-campus at Grenfell College, in late April. He has been doing the show since 1993 and a total of 700 high school science students fill the college theatre each year for the four performances. Larger schools from as far away as Bishop’s Falls send a busload of students while small schools, such as the one in Sop’s Arm, send a car-full of their senior students.
Then it was time for the Road Show along the south coast of Newfoundland. Last year, Burgeo, Ramea, and Grey River were visited and this year Francois, McCallum, Gaultois, and Hermitage were on the route. The first three of these communities are only accessible by boat, so an ex-lobster boat was chartered to carry the boxes of demonstrations and activities on the tight schedule. Dr. Rayner-Canham contends that a major part of the success of the outreach is the key role of the senior undergraduate student colleague. His student colleague for this last year, Tonia Churchill, has just completed her B.Sc. degree in environmental science (chemistry stream), so it was necessary to find a successor: Natalie Alteen. This tour was undertaken by the three of them so Ms. Churchill could train Ms. Alteen for her future role.
The third part of the outreach activities took Dr. Rayner-Canham and Ms. Churchill to Labrador. The first chemistry outreach to Labrador took place in 2002 and Dr. Rayner-Canham has been back there with a student colleague usually twice a year ever since. This year, their presentations started in Hopedale, where they had to reach the town by snowmobile from the airstrip. This is the fourth Inuit community where the children have been ‘turned on’ to the wonders of chemistry and its importance in their lives. From there, they flew to Natuashish, the second Innu community to be visited. With poor weather conditions precluding their visits to Makkovik and Black Tickle, they then presented at several of the schools along the road-accessible part of the Labrador and Quebec coast from Port Hope Simpson, Labrador, to St. Paul’s, Quebec. At each school, the students from as young as kindergarten all the way to the senior students sat enraptured for the 40-minute presentation, asking questions from time to time. Then the students would crowd around Ms. Churchill, asking her questions and examining the materials that the chemistry team had synthesized.
Then it was back to air travel to visit schools along the Quebec north shore, further than they had ever ventured before. The spring of 2006, Dr. Rayner-Canham and Ms. Churchill had flown into St. Augustine and La Tabatiere; this time it was to the schools in Chevery and Harrington Harbour. To reach Harrington Harbour required a helicopter ride from Chevery. Dr. Rayner-Canham has often heard it said that the inhabitants of the Quebec north shore are the ‘forgotten Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans.’
“I think it is tragic that there is so little contact with the residents of these Quebec communities who came from Newfoundland and Labrador and who speak with the same accent as their island relatives,” said Dr. Rayner-Canham.
He noted that he saw the Newfoundland flag and the unofficial Labrador flag being displayed in several locations during his sojourns there.
“In fact,” Dr. Rayner-Canham added, “over the years my student colleagues and I have been given an incredibly warm welcome by the staff and students of these Quebec schools as visitors from their ‘homeland’.”
He said he felt his outreach to these schools held a special additional purpose of building educational links across the very artificial provincial border.
Dr. Rayner-Canham insisted that credit for the success of the venture be shared. It was the Grenfell College chemistry lab staff, Wanda Ellsworth, Wade Goulding, and Anne Dicks, who prepared the solutions and packed everything into the boxes – and cleaned everything up upon the return of the travellers. He noted that he had been exceedingly fortunate in the dedication and enthusiasm of his student colleagues: first Christina Smeaton, then Amy Snook, and now Ms. Churchill and Ms. Alteen.
“And none of this could have occurred,” he said, “without the encouragement and support of the Sir Wilfred Grenfell College administration.”
Finally, he noted the key role of the funding from the NSERC PromoScience program. It was this funding that enabled him to charter a small plane to fly into each remote community, visit the school, and then fly on to the next.
Now Dr. Rayner-Canham finds himself back in Corner Brook to await the feedback from the visited schools. In the past he has received letters, notes, cards, and even artwork from students. Apart from a general raising of awareness of the importance of chemistry in our lives, Dr. Rayner-Canham has learned of students who have raised their career ambitions to science studies at university as a result of their chemistry presentation. For those of them who come to Grenfell College, they already know one friendly and supportive professor – Dr. Rayner-Canham in chemistry.
Dr. Rayner-Canham has received many accolades for his chemistry teaching and his outreach in particular, including a 3M Teaching Fellowship (2007); the Atlantic Provinces Council on the Sciences (APICS) Canpolar Science Communication Award (2006); the MUN President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching (2006); and the MUN F.A. Aldrich Award (1996).