Friday, April 10, 2009

Hello from Saskatoon Canada!
Ambassador: Julita Vassileva, Canada

Hello from Saskatoon, Canada!
(where in April the ice is hesitantly thawing)

Let me present to you Carrie Demmans (in the photo), a 2nd year M.Sc. student in Computer Science at the University of Saskatchewan and a Science Ambassador in a First Nations Community on the Prairies, 2.5 hours North of Saskatoon. But first a few words about the Science Ambassadors Program ( . The idea is to send senior undergraduate and graduate students to Aboriginal Communities for extended periods of time (for example, 1 day every week, 1 week every two months, or 6 weeks in spring). The students help the teacher to find and prepare hands-on science activities, experiments, and games and find culturally appropriate ways to explain science laws or phenomena. During the 2008/2009 year Carrie travelled to the community every 6 weeks and spent a week there as Science Ambassador. The school had just acquired enough computers to equip a lap and place a computer in each classroom. The teachers had no experience with computers and Computer Science has never been part of their curriculum, but they realized the importance of teaching their children skills for the digital age. So Carrie helped the teachers and the students get comfortable using the computers and started teaching computer science concepts across all the grades. Here is what Carrie wrote about her experience as a Science Ambassador:

“Last fall I went into a community near where I grew up and started working with the kids and teachers in their primary school. When I first got there I was given a space in the Computer Lab and a schedule to do computer science activities with each of the classes from grade 2 through 8. I also started helping the nursery, kindergarten, and grade 1 classes during their computer class. I would help them with learning how to log on, and use the computer for the task that their teacher assigned. I am now doing computer science activities with the grade ones, and I am still helping the nursery and kindergarten classes with general computer literacy.

After introductions and getting to know the kids in each class a little better, we did an activity about perceptions, where they had to identify the scientists in a picture and explain why they thought each person was or was not a scientist. We then discussed these ideas and I revealed who among those in the photo were scientists and the type of science that they did. We got to talk about what engineers, geologists, biologists, physicists, and computer scientists did at work. We also discussed their hobbies when I thought that a scientist’s hobby would be of interest to the kids.

Following that initial activity we did a variety of activities about computer science both on the computer and off the computer. Some of these activities were borrowed from CSUnpluggged, while others were developed by me and members of our university’s undergraduate student body for use in their children’s summer camp. The kids and teachers have learned about binary numbers, searching strategies, graphics, software engineering design principles, security, algorithms, and a little bit about programming. Even the grade ones have programmed an animation in only 20 minutes by using Scratch! Over the next couple of months, the kids will learn how to use excel by performing a Fits Law experiment, and they will get to build and program Lego MindStorms robots.

I usually try to have the kids perform an activity and have some guided free time on the computer. If we get the planned activity done in time, I may have them try out different recommender systems or visit a particular website that teaches literacy or math skills through games. At first the kids were resistant and just wanted to go look at videos, but they’ve now gotten used to the system and have their favorite games. What I like about this approach is that it gives the kids some freedom, while ensuring that they are working on core skills that are necessary to their success.

The teachers and administration have done a great job of welcoming me into their community. We help each other out, have potlucks, and share recipes. Their culture teacher has been especially welcoming and we’ve worked together to find electronic resources that she can use in her Cree classes. Overall, I would say that this continues to be an exceptionally rewarding experience for which I am grateful.”