Passing the torch of science education to a next generation

Adopt a Scientist program works with both school boards with hands-on 'ready to present' packages

Adopt a Scientist volunteer Bruce Cater demonstrates the working of a Sterling Engine.

Retirement used to mean sitting at home and enjoying doing nothing. But that is not the case for the 17 active members of Adopt a Scientist.

The organization, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, puts retired scientists and engineers in the schools to demonstrate scientific principles. The group works through the Science Education Partnership, which is a collaboration between the two school boards and 20 plus business and industry partners throughout Lambton Kent. Last year volunteers responded to 196 requests for help from 96 teachers working in 47 different schools.

Adopt a Scientist John Ward demonstrates the principles of a trebuchet siege machine, of the type used to destroy medieval castles.

The group has developed a number of “hands-on” science packages, all based on approved Ontario curriculum and ready to present to students in grades 2 through 8. There are several topics available, including those dealing with electricity, mixtures, matter, movement, gears and pulleys. Members come ready to demonstrate science in a fun and informative way.

Similar “for profit” groups have been tried elsewhere, but Adopt a Scientist in unique, in that it is made volunteer-based. With education budgets already strained, such programs only work where there is a sufficiently large pool of science volunteers available, which is one of the reasons it took root in this area.

Recognizing the need for improved science education, in 1992 Dow Chemical founded the Science Education Partnership with the intent of providing funding for local school boards to purchase quality scientific equipment to help their educators teach science. The idea was that teaching “hands-on” elementary science would not only increase general scientific literacy, but also encourage more students to pursue a science or engineering education.

But good ideas quickly spread and soon Polysar and Imperial Oil joined the initiative, and the concept changed slightly. Instead of just supplying equipment, organizers thought, why not also provide a volunteer to demonstrate and explain the science? After all, the Chemical Valley companies had active retiree groups that included a large number of scientists and engineers.

Adopt a Scientist was finally formed in 1996, and the first volunteers went into the schools to demonstrate science. At first the idea was to have each school “adopt a scientist,” who would then respond to any requests at that school. However, that idea never really caught on, and although the group’s name stayed the same, the concept has changed. As requests from educators came in, the group developed a number of teaching packages, and the scientists formed smaller teams to present those packages, each specializing in a different topic.

Students discover that the length of a pendulum determines the period of swing, while the weight and angle of release have no impact.

What motivates these volunteers is a love of science that they want to share with today’s youth. “We’re just science geeks and kids at heart,” admits one volunteer. Watching the students learn and experience a “hands-on” activity is a joy, but what is also clear is that the volunteers enjoy the experience as much as the students do.

Wendy Hooghiem is the staff coordinator at the Adopt a Scientist program. She can be reached by e-mail ( or phone at (519) 541-0107.

Peter Smith is a retired engineer, volunteer and “science geek” living in Sarnia.

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