Every teacher strives to find ways to make lessons more interactive for students, but in the past, it simply wasn’t possible to bring an astronaut to the classroom to teach them about space, or take them on tours of underground physics laboratories to sharpen their science skills. But today, through modern classroom resources, teachers can call upon industry experts to answer their students’ questions and inspire a love of academia.
Partners in Research, a Canadian educational charity, offers Virtual Researcher on Call, which allows educators to bring experts in a variety of industries into their classes. Kevin Cougler, the executive director of Partners in Research, recently told us what Virtual Researcher on Call is, as well as why he thinks it’s an amazing tool for students.
What is Virtual Researcher on Call?
The Virtual Researcher on Call is the framework for a suite of educational programs that use technology to help connect students in the classroom with experts. The objective is to try to get them to consider different career choices that they might not be exposed to. We have a whole set of programs we’re offering to try to achieve that goal.
One of the programs that has been our flagship since the beginning is called Reaching Every Student. This is an opportunity for teachers and students to bring in an expert by video communication methods…to talk to the class about a subject that relates to their curriculum.
There is another [program] called On the Fly. On the Fly is the ability for a teacher in a classroom to essentially access a list of experts on any subject level across Canada, where they can instantly connect to them within their setting and receive an answer on a subject matter instantly to answer students’ questions in the classroom.
The third [program] is the suite of podcasts that we run. We run four or five different educational podcasts throughout the year, most of them are weekly. The idea is that every week on the various podcasts they interview people that can talk about research related to science, engineering or math, and then we can tie it back to the curriculum and give teachers an idea of how they can bring that real-time relevant information into the classroom and create some activities around them.
What types of professionals do you reach out to for these programs?
Most of them in the science part of it are scientists and researchers that come from universities, and same with engineering and mathematics. We tend to use a lot of faculty members and experts across Canada. For technology, it could be people that are in private business…Technology tends to involve the private sector a little more, and engineering does as well. We’ll connect them with engineering firms that can help them. With science and technology, we are starting to involve the colleges.
Most of these experts are from the STEM professions. Do you have any plans to expand your services to include experts from other fields as well?
We started in STEM about four or five years ago, and we have been dabbling in other subject areas. For instance, history, music, business studies, financial literacy – we’ll be asked to find experts within those domains from time to time, and we don’t advertise it, but if you look on our website and access our video content, you’ll see that there are some videos from other subject matters. We are kind of seeing how it plays out.
How do teachers react to these programs?
We request feedback at different times throughout the year and the most recent feedback phase was just last week. We have feedback from our On the Fly program, and to quote a few teachers is really exciting. They use phrases like, ‘The program is changing our students’ lives. It is creating a future for them they never thought possible.’ When you hear comments like that from teachers and students, you just can’t get enough of those…When we get that feedback, that is what makes it all worthwhile.
Do you have a favourite podcast or video session you’ve recorded as part of the program?
Last year on March break, we had a guest on our This Week in Science and Education podcast. It was Julie Payette, who is a Canadian astronaut…When I put the request into schools I said, ‘Hey, I know you guys are on March break but we actually have a Canadian astronaut who is coming in as part of the show. Do you want to send any kids over?”
We had to turn kids away to talk to this astronaut. We only had space for a couple of kids. So we got a couple kids in, and that for me was probably the best example of what our programming should be. Literally, I just shut up for the entire podcast and just let the kids talk. They were kind of nervous on camera, but after they were done their minds were just blown away. They got to do a thing that most kids are normally never able to do.
My second favourite would be the time we got to broadcast to a couple different schools from something called the SNOLAB. The SNOLAB is an underground physics laboratory, located 2 miles underground in Ontario in the deepest mine in Canada. What we had to do was travel 2 miles down on an elevator dressed as miners and then walk another 2 miles over to this physics research laboratory. We had to be hosed down outside and run through another shower inside in order to get into this environment.
Once we got in there we toured the facility and broadcast live from underground wearing our jumpsuits and hairnets. We looked completely ridiculous, but we were broadcast out to a few hundred schools, and those students were able to see some of the experiments behind us and talk to the director of the facility.
The physics that they are conducting underground is actually looking to prove the existence of dark matter, which is a hot topic in the news. So students who might be hearing about this for the first time in physics classes throughout Canada were able to view this live and see first-hand what that underground facility was like. That was incredibly exciting.
How much would it cost teachers to buy the Virtual Researcher on Call suite?
It depends where they’re located in Canada. Our overall mission is to try to provide our programs at virtually no cost. What we are committed to is if we have some form of government – either municipal, provincial or federal – that has funded us in a particular region, then all of the schools in that region get all of our programming for free, without question.
The second thing that we do is any school that doesn’t fall within that particular region, they are asked to contribute $100 a year for unlimited access to our programming. For that, they get unlimited access but they also get technical support and we give them the software that they need to participate in the program as well. They receive all of that free of charge, so it certainly doesn’t break the bank by any stretch of the imagination.