Bringing Science to Rural Communities: An Interview with Danny Huang of TeamUP Science | By Jenny Lou

As a child, did you ever wonder why? Why the moon waxes and wanes? Why the leaves change colours? Why people get sick?

While that curiosity initially ignited a strong desire to learn more about science, school becomes a frustrating struggle. Every day after school, you’re tutored in math and science for two hours. Afterwards, you feel as if you are just starting to understand concepts. So you spend another hour reviewing your notes. You have to work so hard, just so concepts in math and science begin to make sense. Gradually, frustration sets in and your enthusiasm fades.

As the years pass, you reluctantly put your childhood dream of becoming a healthcare professional on life support. To get into a professional school, you would have to take an overwhelming number of chemistry, physics and biology courses. Considering your mediocre performance in high school science classes, you wonder how you would fare in university. You doubt you could do well in the future and think about pulling the plug on this dream.

As you near high school graduation, you are attracted to two diverging paths: you could pursue the healthcare route or seeing as you live in Alberta, you could find employment on the oil rigs. Most people who work on oil rigs are paid very well and enjoy comfortable lifestyles. Furthermore, you rationalize, if you don’t get into professional school, you’d have racked up thousands of dollars of debt in vain.

Consequently, you never discover that science is your calling.

But, what if you had a chance to see what university-level science is like? What if you had a chance to see that you are capable of tackling university-level science? What if you had a chance to see that science isn’t intimidating?

Working to empower high school students in the sciences is TeamUP Science. Based at the University of Alberta, TeamUP Science is a student-run organization that promotes the sciences amongst high school students. Their flagship event is the Interdisciplinary Science Competition (ISC), which allows high school students to explore university laboratories and to experience science first-hand. The 2nd Annual ISC will be held on March 8th and 9th at the University of Alberta. Recently, I sat down with TeamUP Science’s cofounder, Danny Huang, for a conversation about their work.

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Why was TeamUp Science started?

TeamUP Science was started as a direct response to a comment I heard from a rural Albertan student while working in my summer research lab. She commented that science opportunities such as research were not avidly promoted in her community, and that she did not have a lot of options. Consequently, I co-founded TeamUP Science with my research supervisor to bridge the information gap and offer learning opportunities for the under-represented students.

So, what is the Interdisciplinary Science Competition?

The Interdisciplinary Science Challenge (ISC) is a two day, provincial competition for high school students that exposes them to advanced science, and enables them to experience undergraduate level science. Preference for participation is given to students who live in rural areas or who come from families with low incomes.

Describe the competition. What kind of work do students participate in and what do they learn?

Essentially, students conduct three experiments that answer one central research question. Our high school participants conduct experiments involving biology, chemistry and physics, in university laboratories.  Last year, students performed bacterial killing assays, purified a compound through recrystallization, and utilized spectrophotometric quantification. These promising high school students are trying out experiments that university students would normally do as part of their laboratory work. Throughout the experiments, we try to emphasize how interdisciplinary science is. We want to show students how the different branches in science can work together and solve practical problems. This helps students appreciate the value of what they’re learning in school, since they don’t often see the practical aspects of what they’re learning. Hopefully, with this competition, we can bridge that gap and inspire them to pursue science in the future. 

The ISC sounds like a great opportunity for all high school students! In particular though, what  kind of impact does the ISC have on students who live in rural areas?

Students living in rural areas lack the resources and access to academic opportunities compared to students in urban areas. There are very few university-calibre labs in villages and small towns, and few researchers or professors to ignite curiosity about the sciences. This is in particular important for the sciences, where lab experience is very important. Compared to students in urban areas, there are also fewer science-related opportunities, like science fairs or laboratory tours.  In contrast, students living in Edmonton or Calgary have access to programs such as TD Discovery Days, where students explore different health-related careers in workshops led by healthcare professionals or HYRS, where students can conduct a research project in the labs of renowned researchers. The fewer opportunities for students living in rural areas puts them at a disadvantage.  To help remedy this, preference in participation to the ISC is given to rural students. By catering the ISC to rural students, we can show them there is a lot more to science than what they read in textbooks or see on TV. We want to help them gain a better appreciation for the sciences. We hope that the ISC encourages them to develop an interest in the sciences and help them realize that the sciences can be a great career option.

Last year was the inaugural ISC. What kind of work did TeamUP Science have to put into organizing it?

Yes, last year was our pilot year. It was a lot of work! There were a lot of collaborations between the science departments: chemistry, biology, and Science 100, in order to put the interdisciplinary aspects together. It was a lot of networking, collaborating between faculties and securing grants for the inaugural competition. We were very happy with how the first ISC went. We had 40 students participate and it was received very well.

Tell me about the team involved with planning and organizing such a great event.

TeamUP Science is a student group, comprised mainly of third and fourth year undergraduate student volunteers. We have people from very diverse backgrounds, ranging from Engineering to Medical Laboratory Science. We’re able to utilize everyone’s knowledge to make the ISC interdisciplinary. We have a team in charge of physics, chemistry, biology and they come up with the experimental procedures that students follow. Then, we also have a team of people that take care of logistics. All of them come together to make this happen. We also have a team dedicated to external outreach, who work on acquiring sponsorships, and other details. We’re very fortunate to have such a group of dedicated students who take significant time out of their busy schedule in order to ensure that the ISC is a success.

What kind of lessons did TeamUP Science learn from organizing the competition last year?

We’ve figured out the timeline for planning the competition. Last year, the competition was in February and we started advertising the competition in January.  However, in January high school students are writing midterms, finals and diploma exams. It was much more difficult to reach out to rural and Aboriginal students then and especially during such a short timeframe. This year, we’re moving the competition to March. This change will give us a longer timeframe to reach out to students and let them know about this opportunity.  This year, we are also working with existing outreach groups at the University, such as the recruitment office, to get the word out to more remote places. With the lessons that we’ve learned, we’re also going to expand the competition. Last year, 40 students participated. This year, we’re hoping to have 100 students. Logistically, this will be much more challenging. But, with our experience from last year and our improved planning, I think we can make it happen.

A few months ago, TeamUP Science received $25 000 of funding from State Farm Insurance.  Congratulations! What are your plans with the funds?

The funding will allow us to reach out to high school students living in rural areas. We’ll be able to provide students with subsidies for accommodations, travel and meals. They’ll be able to come out to Edmonton and have a great weekend of learning. We’re looking to subsidize upwards of 20 students. Depending on how successful it is, we will adjust those numbers the following year.

If people are interested in getting involved in the ISC, how do they do that?

High school students interested in participating in the ISC can apply on our website: http://www.isc.teamupscience.com/registration/. The deadline for applications is February 23, 2014.

Every September, we recruit volunteers for TeamUP Science at the UofA Clubsfair. That’s when most of our recruiting happens. If anyone is interested in helping out with the ISC itself, they can contact us at ISC@teamupscience.com . We are looking for volunteers to help out with crowd control, relaying instructions and TAing for the weekend of March 8th/9th .

Good luck to TeamUP Science with the second annual ISC!

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