7,600 km – that’s the return distance covered in nine days by Geoff Rayner-Canham and two students as they took their “Chemistry is Everywhere!” presentation to schools across Nunavut.
Since 2002, Dr. Rayner-Canham and his volunteer student assistants have been taking their touring show to schools across Labrador, the lower north-shore Quebec and south-western Newfoundland. The message is to show that chemistry is fascinating, exciting and relevant. In addition, chemistry courses are required for most of today’s high-tech careers.
As a result of this success, particularly in schools in Nunatsiavut, Dr. Rayner-Canham obtained core funding from the National Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada’s PromoScience program to take the presentation to schools in Nunavut. Over the past year, he obtained additional support from the Ministry of Education for Nunavut, the Kivalliq Aboriginal Training Fund, the Chemical Education Trust Fund of the Chemical Institute of Canada, Memorial University St. John’s and Grenfell College. With this additional support, the project became possible.
The funding was sufficient to cover the costs of a one-week visit to schools in communities in each of the three regions of Nunavut: Iqaluit in the eastern region of Qitiqtaaluk; Baker Lake in the central region of Kivalliq; and Gjoa Haven and Cambridge Bay in the western region of Kitikmeot.
Dr. Rayner-Canham was accompanied by second-year environmental chemistry student Laura Griffin and Christina Smeaton., who was Dr. Rayner-Canham’s first student assistant, 2002-04, and is currently pursuing her PhD in environmental biogeochemistry at the Great Lakes Institute of Environmental Research at the University of Windsor, Ontario.
Transportation was provided by Strait Air of Forteau. It took two months of planning for the owner and pilots to organize the route with refueling stops and to arrange the drums of fuel to be available at those airstrips. The plane had to be equipped with survival suits and an inflatable life raft. In addition, the seats had to be removed from one side of the Piper Navajo aircraft to make room for the boxes of demonstrations used for the show.
“We needed to make the presentations specifically relevant to people of the north,” said Dr. Rayner-Canham, “so we opened the show with a look at the chemistry of materials relevant to Inuit culture, such as ivory and stone, and of course water, the only substance for which the solid is less dense than the liquid form, so that ice floats on water.”
Ms. Smeaton said the response from the students was “awesome.
“Particularly the younger ones – they were open-mouthed with fascination,” she said.
The presentation contained a section on consumer chemistry, including the difference in composition between cheap (‘fake’) and premium (‘real’) soy sauces. The presenters were astounded to discover that soy sauce has become a key ingredient of Inuit cuisine. So upon arrival at each community, they had to check the local stores to find out which brands were carried so they could make the discussion very relevant.
The presentation concluded with a quick review of the current and future climate changes that scientists expect in the Arctic. Rayner-Canham linked the environmental changes with a suggestion to students to seriously consider careers in environmental science, particularly environmental biology or environmental chemistry. Then they could monitor changes in the north on a continuous basis rather than rely on the periodic visits of scientists from the south.
After each show, groups of students came up to the demonstration benches to try some of the chemical experiments and to talk with the two students about careers in environmental science.
“We’re convinced, from the response we had, that we have changed at least some lives through the chemistry outreach,” said Dr. Rayner-Canham. “We were also overwhelmed by the stark beauty of the north and by the incredible friendliness shown to us by the people we encountered.”
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