Mentors of Distinction
A child may be curious about the world, have a knack for solving puzzles and even show proficiency for science and technology – but how do they take that innate ability and turn it into a future career?
That’s one of the main objectives of the Destination Exploration programs at the University of Lethbridge says Kristy Burke, Manager of Youth Science Programs.
“It’s about getting the wheels turning. We want to provide the kids with a fun, interactive experience that might engage and expose them to science beyond what the classroom typically offers.”
During the year, Destination Exploration facilitates both on-campus programs and in-classroom workshops, Burke says.
“We have a number of science clubs and programs running concurrently, which includes Operation Minerva and Operation Minerva for aboriginal girls. From May to June, there is the Traveling Lab Coats, led by summer students who go to locations in and around Lethbridge to conduct educational activities. In the past we have offered a program called Science Ambassadors that sends aboriginal university students (when available) to aboriginal communities to promote science in the schools for up to a month.
“We also facilitate day camps in the lab for students classified as ‘gifted and talented’ as a bonus for those who excel in and love science, as well as after-school programs named Little Elements, for kids in Grades 1-3 and Bunsen & Beaker, targeting Grades 4-6,” Burke says, adding that she not only coordinates the programs, but gets involved in their delivery when time allows.
“I like working with all the different ages, but I think the Operation Minerva groups are my favourite because when I get to do things with the girls, it kind of reminds me of being 14 years old and hanging out with my girlfriends again.”
Burke admits that when she was in high school, she was not exactly a science scholar. In fact, it wasn’t until she moved away from home that she realized having one year of English and one year of art school under her belt would not pay the bills.
“I knew I needed to expand my options in order to make money, so I started working outdoor jobs like planting trees and discovered a real passion for the environment,” she says. She earned a diploma in Recreation, Fish and Wildlife, finished her degree in Environmental Science and is now working on her MA in Education.
“I am doing a case study of Operation Minerva; specifically, interviewing and tracking the girls participating in the program. Follow-up surveys completed by the students ask if it made them want to pursue science, but you can never be sure if they actually do. So I want to look at it from a long-term perspective; specifically, do these types of mentoring programs really make them aware of their career options in science and technology and what it takes to get there successfully?”
Burke believes there is a big gap in most students’ understanding of what they need to do to get to those careers and the courses that they need to take in high school.
“They have to learn that if they want to be a pharmacist or an engineer or a computer technician, they need to make the right decisions while still in school. That means taking Math 30, Chem 30 and Bio 30 even if you don’t necessarily like them,” she says.
“On top of that, they need a layer of awareness about what careers are available to them. Many kids go into engineering because one of their parents or someone they know is an engineer and has ‘demystified’ the field for them. Every kid deserves the advantage of knowing a ‘real person’ who has these types of careers.”
One way that Destination Exploration is opening these doors to kids from all backgrounds is by holding Learning Quest summer camps.
“We love seeing the kids have fun and making sure they have a good experience because going to summer camp has the potential to impact them for the rest of their lives,” she says, adding that it is personally rewarding to hear when that impact is already apparent.
“For example, one camper told us, ‘I love going to science camp because I don’t have to win.’ He wasn’t athletic, and to him, being part of science camp was more fun than attending a competitive sports camp. And very recently, when Bill Nye was here at the university, I had a 13-year-old kid come up to me and say hello. I had first met him at our camp four years ago; he’s been there every year since and is going to work as a volunteer for us now,” Burke says proudly.
“When you hear those kinds of stories and see what a difference a positive, out-of-classroom science experience can have, you just know that what you’re doing is worthwhile.”
After Kristy worked at the University of Lethbridge, she moved to Edmonton and was the Assistant Coordinator - WISEST, University of Alberta. She coordinated a diverse set of outreach programs for them before moving on.
Updated February, 2016.