A little nudge in the right direction
Whether through the influence of inspiring teachers, education camps or happenstance, early exposure to science and math can spark lifelong passion.
By BRYAN ALARY
Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous literary detective Sherlock Holmes once noted that “the little things are infinitely the most important.” It’s a belief that investigators at the University of Alberta obviously share. Whether they’re seeking to understand the tiniest forms of life, taking small steps toward major breakthroughs or influencing students in subtle but profound ways, U of A researchers and educators are proving that little things can make a big impact.
It’s not often that a two-year-old can accurately predict his future career, but W. Scott Persons has a gift for unearthing complex mysteries. Some of his earliest childhood memories are of his father reading The Big Little Dinosaur, a dinosaur tale he figures they read hundreds of times.
“From there, I was hooked,” remembers Persons, a PhD candidate in paleontology at the University of Alberta whose research focuses on dinosaur movement and adaptation.
The rest of his childhood was spent poring over dinosaur books and toys, gleaning facts and theories on prehistoric creatures dating back hundreds of millions of years. But unlike a lot of kids, Persons didn’t like to get dirty and avoided digging in the backyard—a potential hiccup for the career prospects of the next great dino hunter.
To make sure he was cut out for field work, when Scott was 12 years old the Persons family headed west from their North Carolina home to Wyoming for some summer hands-on learning. Their first stop was the Glenrock Paleon Museum, where Persons went on his first ever fossil dig. Later, he joined about two dozen other paleontology enthusiasts of all ages in Como Bluff to learn alongside world-renowned scientist and author Robert T. Bakker—Persons’ childhood hero.
Persons remembers the group was waiting for the habitually tardy Bakker inside the Little Dip Diner when a silhouetted figure pushed through the establishment’s swinging saloon doors—“Like a gunslinger,” he remembers.
“You all read your introductory pamphlets, and that means you should all have a lot of questions!” Bakker declared, before levelling a finger directly at Persons, by far the youngest of the group (his parents had lied about his age just to get him on the expedition). “You should have a question.”
Persons gulped but managed to squeak out a query about the existence of raptors in the Jurassic Period. (He’d only ever heard of Cretaceous raptors to that point in his life.)
“It turns out it was a pretty good question,” Persons says.
Impressed, Bakker took Persons under his wing during that expedition, a relationship that grew over the next eight years as the young student returned every summer for paleontology digs. When it came time to choose a graduate school, it was Bakker who introduced Persons to the U of A’s Philip Currie, now his graduate supervisor. And just like fossils waiting to be uncovered, the rest is history.
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Sharon Morsink got a nudge from NASA that sparked her passion for the stars. Now she passes along that scientific spark to the 4,000 children who visit the U of A Observatory each year.
Sharon Morsink spied the future as a young girl in Windsor, Ont., reading issues of Scientific American, poring over pages that first explained the concept of quarks or early computer programs. In those pre-Internet days, she would send away for information packages from science organizations like Environment Canada and NASA, and eagerly stake out the mailbox.
“NASA sent me an enormous package—it was a good inch and a half thick, full of brochures about astronomy, about rockets, about all sorts of stuff,” Morsink remembers. “There was one brochure on high-energy astrophysics, which I read over and over again—constantly. There were all sorts of words I’d never heard of before—black holes, pulsars, quasars. I wanted to know more.”
By the time she reached university, Morsink had decided on a career in the sciences. Lacking much in the way of career advice, she enrolled in mechanical engineering because she thought it offered decent job prospects. It wasn’t a good fit, so she switched to physics in her second year—and hasn’t looked back ever since.
Now an associate professor in the Faculty of Science, Morsink is training the next generation, both as an astrophysicist who researches neutron stars at the U of A and as a community leader who opens up the University of Alberta Observatory to youth and the general public.
About 50 to 60 school groups visit the observatory every year to learn about astronomy and observe the sun’s protosphere through the rooftop hydrogen-alpha telescopes. The science outreach is part of the Sky Scan program, created by professor emeritus Doug Hube and now run by Morsink, which lights a spark of learning through classroom visits and field trips by 4,000 children a year.
A young visitor peers at the sun through a special telescope at the U of A Observatory.
Morsink may not be the one leading the kids on their field trips, but she knows their experience at the observatory reinforces what they learn in classes—at an age where any additional exposure can be invaluable.
“Coming out to the university is a lot of fun for the kids. You get some pretty views of the sun and it’s pretty impressive-looking, actually,” says Morsink, whose efforts with outreach earned her the U of A’s inaugural Community Leader Award in 2013.
The first time the youngsters look through the telescope eyepiece, some are hooked. “Any time you are provoking questions, it’s a good sign that some learning is happening.”
From LEGO to emissions-free cars
Marcus Stack with Alice, the hydrogen-powered car he built as part of the UAlberta EcoCar team. His early mechanical education included building rockets and robots at the U of A’s DiscoverE summer camp.
Marcus Stack tinkered from an early age. It started with trains—Thomas the Tank Engine, to be specific—and an interest in mechanical systems. Later came his LEGO “infatuation” phase, when every block served his imagination. As a 10-year-old attending a DiscoverE summer camp at the U of A, he built his own mini electric car—two DC motors rigged to a cardboard and Popsicle stick body with milk jug lids for wheels.
Now in his twenties, Stack still tinkers—but instead of LEGO, he designs and builds emission-free electric cars. The third-year engineering co-op student is one of 15 core student organizers behind the U of A’s entry in the annual EcoCar competition. The U of A team recently unveiled “Alice,” a hydrogen fuel cell car they hope to steer into the hearts of judges at the Shell Eco-marathon in Detroit later this month.
“This is my LEGO now. This is my cardboard electric car,” Stack says of Alice, which at the time of this interview was a half-completed shell parked beneath fluorescent lights inside a caged-off section of a North Campus parkade. The makeshift workshop is where the EcoCar team toiled for weeks, fabricating their designs into a zero-emissions vehicle made of carbon fibre.
Stack himself spent his entire summer designing the car’s aeroshell, turning a clay model created by U of A industrial design students into something that not only looks great, but is safe and driveable, too.
The summer project hearkened back to Stack’s childhood designing rockets and LEGO robots at DiscoverE, the Faculty of Engineering’s educational outreach program rooted in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
The EcoCar team created a slick trailer to build anticipation for the unveiling of Alice in March.
Stack still remembers the excitement he felt watching camp instructors “do cool things with science.” Experiences like building the cardboard electric car and racing his creation against those of his friends left a lasting mark.
He enjoyed the experience so much that in Grade 12 he volunteered as a DiscoverE junior summer instructor and a year later signed on as a formal instructor, teaching one of his favourite courses from childhood—robotic LEGO. Suddenly, he was the one doing cool things with science and providing a spark of wonder to youngsters.
“I want everyone to be able to have the same opportunity that I had, to fall in love with STEM, because I remember being in the ETLC building, designing these robots as a kid. And there I was, being the instructor who is designing these challenges and seeing everything come full circle. That was awesome for me.”
Just as the mere mention of LEGO gave him a thrill as a youngster, Stack says he feels the same way about the EcoCar and translating what he’s learned in classrooms into something “real that you’re able to touch.” Designing sustainable cars for a company like Tesla is his dream job and, ultimately, how he’d like to make a difference.
“What they’re working towards and what they’ve been able to accomplish demonstrates that engineering can change the status quo,” he says. “They have completely changed the perspective of the entire world, and that excites me as a student.”