Saturday, March 14, 2015

The growth of space-based STEM for kids in Canada

Affordable and available. Nothing is widely adopted without meeting those two requirements.

Affordability and availability also matter in promoting space-based science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education.

STEM programs have been around for decades; astronomy, rocketry, and other space-related activities have been part of it. Getting a student project into space, though, wasn’t easy due to the expense and the limited number of launches.

With the introduction of inexpensive microsatellites, a growing commercial launch market, interest in space-based STEM from tech companies, and crowdfunding campaigns, even elementary school students can get their projects into low Earth orbit.

Space-based STEM Stories in the News

As space-based STEM projects for Canadian elementary schools become more common, so do media reports about them.

B.C. students’ space project set for liftoff once more is a story about 4 boys from McGowan Park Elementary School in Kamloops, B.C., who won a NASA-supported contest to have their experiment flown to the International Space Station (ISS). The experiment was to see how a zero-gravity environment affected the growth of crystals.

The boys ran into some trouble along the way. The Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket that carried their experiment exploded during its launch from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Virginia, on October 28, 2014.

The boys got another chance to launch, this time successfully, on a SpaceX flight to the ISS on January 10, 2015.

The Interlake School division, located about 25 km north of Winnipeg, won a competition to fly an experiment to the ISS. As noted in the story, From Interlake to space for winning science project, an astronaut did the experiment and reported the results to the 450 Grade 5 and 6 Interlake students.

As noted on their website, the University of Toronto Schools (UTS) from Toronto, Ontario, was the third Canadian school and the first Ontario school to be accepted into the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP). As described on the SSEP website, the program is “...a model U.S. national STEM education initiative for Grades 5-16 to inspire the next generation of America’s scientists and engineers.” The Grade 9 students from UTS will have a microgravity experiment flown to the ISS.

What makes this story different is the students had to raise $11,500 on their own. They ran a Kickstarter campaign and raised the entire amount, guaranteeing their participation in the project.

The Halton Catholic District School Board website features a story about St. Matthew Catholic Elementary students from Burlington, Ontario, participating in a project called the Tomatosphere Club.

The club is a research project involving about 17,000 Canadian and US students from Grades 2 to 10. The students planted and studied 2 groups of tomato seeds—a control group and a group that spent 22 months on the ISS—to see if the space seeds grew differently.

Bloomfield Elementary School teacher inspires successful Space Academy program is a story about 87 students at Bloomfield Elementary School in Prince Edward Island. The students, from Kindergarten to Grade 8, built and launched their own rockets.

They used NASA’s BEST (Beginning Engineering, Science, and Technology) Program to guide their project. The BEST program teaches kids about rocketry, robotics, computer programming, and the engineering design process.

Here are two points worth noting—more companies are supporting student space-based STEM projects, and some projects are international.

A posting at Canadensys Aerospace’s website called Canadian school joins world’s first elementary school space mission talks about Canadensys Aerospace of Bolton, Ontario, teaming up with St. John Paul II Catholic School, also in Bolton, for an international space project.

The school will provide a Remote Mission Operations Center (RMOC) for a satellite built by an elementary school in the United States. The entire student body at the Bolton, Ontario, school will participate in the project.

The Problems Facing STEM Education in Canada

As inspiring as these stories might be, there are too few of them. According to a story from called Weird science: STEM fields face image problem in K-to-12 schools, STEM education in general is lagging in Canada.

Data from a 2011 National Household Survey at the Statistics Canada website shows that STEM graduates make up only 18.6% of post-secondary graduates.

The Conference Board of Canada’s website shows that Canada ranks 12th out of 16th in a 2011 study of peer countries that produce STEM graduates in science, math, computer science, and engineering.

Canada also needs to do more to achieve gender balance in STEM. A publication at the Statistics Canada website from December 18, 2013, called Gender differences in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and computer science (STEM) programs at university concludes that more work is needed to achieve a better gender balance in STEM careers.
“Over the past few decades, women have made significant advances in university participation, including program areas that had previously been more populated by men. One area, however, remains male-dominated: science, technology, engineering and mathematical (STEM) degrees. And among women who choose to pursue a degree in STEM, most do so in biology or science programs, resulting in even fewer women in engineering, computer science and mathematics programs. These choices have consequences, as fields of study such as engineering and computer science lead, on average, to better outcomes in the labour market in terms of employment, job match and earnings.
For some, aptitude for a particular subject is a factor in university program choice. Although mathematical ability plays a role, it does not explain gender differences in STEM choices. Young women with a high level of mathematical ability are significantly less likely to enter STEM fields than young men, even young men with a lower level of mathematical ability. This suggests that the gender gap in STEM-related programs is due to other factors. Other possible explanations might include differences in labour market expectations including family and work balance, differences in motivation and interest, and other influences.”
As space resources become more affordable and available, the number of children who benefit from space-based STEM projects will likely multiply.

But as the statistics show for STEM in general, Canada still has a way to go before we can confidently say that the next generation will be ready to meet the challenges of the future.

Public and Private STEM Resources

This is a sampling of national organizations and government resources in Canada aimed at STEM education for younger children.


Actua’s beginnings go back to 1988 with a student-run science and engineering camp at Queen’s University. The idea spread to other universities, and Actua was formed in 1993 with funding from Industry Canada. Funding now comes from public and private organizations.

Actua specializes in programs at day camps, workshops, clubs, and community outreach programs for aboriginal children, girls, and underprivileged children.

They do this by one of 2 ways: through a membership of 32 Canadian universities and colleges, and with their own team of outreach instructors who travel to different parts of Canada, including remote areas.

According to the statistics on their website, they connect with 225,000 kids from ages 6 to 16 in 450 to 500 communities across Canada each year.

Let’s Talk Science

Founded in 1993 by Dr. Bonnie Schmidt, Let’s Talk Science is a national, charitable organization headquartered in London, Ontario. They focus on training volunteers to teach science to kids in an entertaining, effective way.

According to the programs page on their website, Let’s Talk Science offers “...a full suite of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs for Kindergarten to Grade 12 educators, including hands-on STEM classroom outreach, online chat forums, program planning resources, action projects and professional learning opportunities.

Let’s Talk Science partners with 41 colleges and universities across Canada. The colleges and universities act as the contact points for the organization’s main program, Let’s Talk Science Outreach. They help train and place volunteers, as well as set up the program for elementary schools, high schools, libraries, and community organizations.

The organization has also done 20 research studies on science education.

Funding comes from public and private organizations, and through individual donations.

Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC)

NSERC has 2 programs:
  • The PromoScience Program grants up to $2.75 million in funding each year to organizations that provide a hands-on learning experience for kids in STEM education.
The 5 Chairs represent regions in the Atlantic provinces, Quebec, Ontario, the Prairie provinces, and British Columbia/Yukon.

Resources at

The government of Canada has links to STEM resources for kindergarten and elementary schools on their web page. These resources come from other government agencies like Environment Canada, the Canadian Space Agency, the Canada Science and Technology Museum, the Canada Agriculture Museum, and more.

Canadian Space Agency

The Canadian Space Agency has an educators resource page featuring astronomy and space-based information and projects for elementary and secondary students.