Mentor of Distinction
Science education program development may not directly involve handling test tubes, Bunsen burners and volatile chemicals – but nonetheless, it’s a career where you can see the sparks fly.
Rhonda Normore has been involved in developing school and community-based science programs for not-for-profit organizations, including Operation Minerva, for over 16 years. Now President of the Calgary Science Network, which facilitates in-classroom interaction between scientists and schoolchildren, she is continuing her career-long goal to “bring science to life” in the eyes of impressionable young Isaac Newtons and Marie Curies.
“I really enjoy what I do. In fact, everyone you run into in science and education outreach – whether it’s environmental education, Operation Minerva, a science camp coordinator at the university or Calgary Science Network – just love this kind of work,” Normore says.
This is a field where creativity, innovation and energy are valued. You constantly have opportunities to expand your abilities and your vision of how to reach out to kids and to the community in general.
Although she initially set out to be a classroom teacher, it was while finishing her undergraduate degree in education at Memorial University of Newfoundland that a bulletin board notice caught Normore’s eye.
“I had come across this notice at the library looking for a volunteer to organize the science and engineering program for kids in coordination with the university’s faculty of engineering and the Association of Professional Engineers in Newfoundland,” she recalls. “I did a minor in science for my elementary education degree, so I was game for it and thought it sounded like fun.”
What started out as a “fun” volunteer initiative turned into two years working as Director of Future Scientists, Engineers and Technologists, part of the national Actua program, which provides kids with a positive hands-on learning experience in science and technology. Eventually, she was approached by the Newfoundland ScienceCentre to develop its school and community-based programs.
“That kind of set me along,” she says. “I made the decision to leave teaching in the traditional way and never really went back to it.”
Over the next few years, Normore moved to Calgary and organized community science festivals for the ScienceAlberta Foundation before accepting a one-year contract with the Edinburgh International Science Festival in Scotland.
Shortly after she returned to Canada, she and her husband moved to Australia and then New Zealand – and all the while she accumulated valuable experience in programming, including as interim program director at the Museum of Transportation and Technology in Auckland.
From all the organizations I’ve worked with abroad, it’s been interesting that they all seem to have the same outreach message and yet, there are cultural differences in the way the messages are communicated.
“For instance, in Edinburgh, I asked why there were no science education camp programs and they explained that it wasn’t really something Scottish families did. They considered it a ‘North American thing’ to book kids into a series of summer camps.”
Despite what the Scots might think, Normore maintains that science outreach camps are among Canada’s many important educational initiatives.
“I think they have really helped build a strong foundation of awareness of how important science programming is. Although Canadian universities have always done a certain amount of outreach, camps have increased the amount of attention to the outreach programming they are doing. It’s a great recruitment strategy for the university and also a means of ensuring they are playing a role in the community.”
Normore says that, comparatively speaking, Canada remains quite innovative in the amount of opportunities it provides to children who may be developing an interest in science.
“Our science centres across the country are doing some pretty great things and there’s a network of media – from CBC to the Discovery Channel, including a variety of youth-focused programming – helping to expose students and the general public to all the exciting things happening out there,” she says. “It’s certainly part of our culture to involve our children in a variety of activities throughout the year and that’s helped support and expand programs of excellence at science centres and smaller niche programs like Actua and the University of Calgary’s Minds in Motion camps.”
After returning to Canada and putting roots down in Calgary, Normore worked as a program coordinator with Operation Minerva while finishing the graduate degree she had started years earlier. She then accepted work on a variety of contracts, including the Inglewood Wildlands project to educate students about the ongoing reclamation of an industrially-contaminated site into 34 acres of natural wildland, while volunteering on the board of the Calgary Science Network.
“I’ve had a long history of science education in the community and with school-age students, but in the last while, my role has been more about management behind the scenes,” she says, adding that while she no longer works directly with youth, creating and evaluating programs for them is no less fulfilling.
Normore also says that, perhaps despite some concerns that there may already be an overcrowding of outreach programs with a similar scope, they all seem to have their rightful place in engaging kids in science.
“For the most part, the reason these programs have multiplied and evolved over the past 10 to 15 years is because they have different ways of approaching science education. They reach out to different age levels in different ways,” she says.
“Operation Minerva, for example, seizes the niche for interacting with 13- and 14-year-old girls at a stage of their life where they’re making important social and educational decisions. Recognizing that it’s a crucial time to have programming that captures their attention and interest is vital,” Normore says. “In the same way, the Calgary Science Network makes sure that there’s a vehicle for scientists who want to share their enthusiasm for what they do directly to youth. For a kid who is keen on science or may have attended other programs, there’s great value in having a CSN volunteer come to their school to support their interest.
“In some cases, it may be true that some of these programs overlap, but there’s nothing wrong with building a consistent and positive message and an awareness of the possibilities available through science and technology.”