April 29, 2014

Isabelle (from Let’s Talk Science head office), Mandeep and Nicole with their supply sleds.


Elementary students enjoying a cup of “slime”.

What would convince two grad students to volunteer their time to travel to Arviat, Nunavut in the middle of winter?


Laden with ingredients to make slime, Alka Seltzer rockets, kaleidoscopes and “lungs in a cup”, SFU’s Let’s Talk Science volunteer Mandeep Takhar and Let’s Talk Science coordinator Nicole Bance enthusiastically took up the challenge.

Both women have been involved for several years with Let’s Talk Science, a national organization that supports educators in teaching science to children and youth through free, hands-on science activities. When a former volunteer, who now teaches at a school in remote Arviat, requested a visit and offered his personal airmiles to cover a portion of their flight, both women leapt at the opportunity. Additional funding from Dean of Science, Claire Cupples covered the remaining airfare and the cost of supplies.

After being stranded by snowstorms first in Winnipeg and then Churchill, Manitoba, the two arrived in Arviat two days late. Churchill welcomed them with a record-setting temperature of -55 degrees, the coldest day of the year, making the temperature in Arviat (-40) a little easier to handle. Nicole remembers the shock, “My glasses immediately froze up, and I could hardly breath, it felt like my lungs were freezing!”

After finally arriving in Arviat and loading their sleds with supplies, Nicole headed to the elementary school while Mandeep headed to the middle school to demonstrate some hands-on science activities and answer some very frank questions about themselves -  where they were from, what they were studying and how long were they staying? Both Nicole and Mandeep were impressed with the students who were extremely respectful, polite and excited to have guests in their classroom. While their general classroom knowledge was less sophisticated, they were eager to share the myths and customs of the North and sang the national anthem in French, English and Inuktituk.

Learning to live with the conditions that northern weather brings, Nicole and Mandeep changed plans when the Science Fair they were supposed to assist with got cancelled due to a blizzard.  With the help of their generous host, Stephen Penney, the women were able to set up a weekend science workshop for the community instead.

The extreme weather was a small price to pay for an experience that neither women will soon forget. Mandeep says,  “It was an eye opener and truly makes you appreciate how big and culturally diverse Canada is.”

Nicole agrees, ”Even though our trip had some hiccups, I’m glad that we went with the flow and did as much as we could with the community. The main contact at the elementary school, Ryan, and the principle, Marvin, both expressed their regret that the weather hampered our visit but also their sincerest gratitude for the activities we led. However, I can’t help but feeling that I have learnt a lot from them - more so than they will ever know.”

In addition to working on their post-graduate studies, an MSc for Mandeep and a PhD for Nicole, both would love to return to the North – but perhaps in the summertime.