Let’s Talk Science celebrates our longest-standing volunteer

Dr. Barbara Vanderhyden

The year was 1993. Dr. Barbara Vanderhyden, a young faculty member at the University of Ottawa (UOttawa), was looking for innovative ways she could teach her two graduate students. She encouraged them to go into a local high school and talk to the students about science and their own research. As she says, “I wanted to provide the opportunity for graduate students to benefit from having the community be aware of and appreciate their research.”

The idea was more successful than Vanderhyden ever could have imagined.

“By the end of that first year, simply by word of mouth, we had 13 graduate students going into schools regularly,” Vanderhyden recalls. “The teachers heard about it and wanted us to come to their classrooms and other students saw what their peers were doing and wanted to participate too.”

Vanderhyden knew this experience offered something special. The high school visits were beneficial to all involved, inspiring an interest in science and rejuvenating the graduate students.

“I had one student come back from a visit completely re-energized,” Barbara remembers. “She’d been having a horrible time in previous months with her lab experiment and it was getting her down. She spent an hour in the classroom talking about her research and the enthusiasm of the students re-motivated her to go back to her experiment with a much more positive attitude.”

At the same time, Dr. Bonnie Schmidt was pioneering science outreach at the University of Western Ontario (Western). The two women had been graduate students together in the same department at Western. This was an opportunity for them to work together.

“Bonnie was calling the outreach going on at Western, Let’s Talk Science. I thought if I was going to grow what was happening at UOttawa, I’d do the same and make the first outreach branch of the program,” Barbara explains.

With her efforts, Barbara was instrumental in helping Let’s Talk Science take a step towards becoming a national organization. Alongside Bonnie she was part of pioneering a model that would be transferable and sustainable, and would eventually lead to 49 different post-secondary sites operating as of 2018.

Barbara was recently awarded the prestigious Alumni Award of Merit for 25 years of Community Service from Western. “The award is so meaningful to me because it comes from my alma mater and I loved my time at Western,” says Barbara. “Also, Western is the place where the roots of Let’s Talk Science were first planted.”

Over the past 25 years, Barbara says Let’s Talk Science has been a huge part of her life. She loves the program and what it does for graduate students as well as children and youth in the community. “It’s fun to see new ideas taken from concept to let’s make this work in the classroom,” Barb says. “I like to see the creativity of the volunteers and coordinators and watch them find new ways to inspire each other and kids in the classroom.”

Under Barbara’s leadership, the growth of Let’s Talk Science Outreach at UOttawa over the past 25 years has been extraordinary. The Ottawa site now has 325 volunteers. Last year alone, these dedicated volunteers facilitated over 900 hands-on activities with more than 34,000 kids and youth – representing almost 10% of Let’s Talk Science Outreach’s yearly national reach. “We’re everywhere in the community,” Barbara says. “We’re the first organization people call if they need someone to do a science activity.” 

The success of the program in Ottawa led Barbara to create a new graduate course at UOttawa. “Community Outreach and Media Relations in the Sciences was developed when we had a big group of Let’s Talk Sciences volunteers who wanted to be even better volunteers,” Barbara explains. “They wanted to learn better skills in talking about their research to the public and the media.” The course, which began in 2008, runs across all faculties and is hugely popular.

One particular aspect of Let’s Talk Science Outreach in Ottawa which has thrived under Barbara’s direction is outreach to Indigenous children and youth. Volunteers have been carrying out trips to Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, Northern Ontario and Northern Quebec since 2009, getting kids excited about their school day and leading them to consider following in the footsteps of the volunteer role models. Along the same lines, the Aboriginal Mentorship Program, which pairs Indigenous high school students with volunteer mentors, is also making an impact on hundreds of young lives.

All of us at Let’s Talk Science are grateful to Barbara for the vital role she continues to play at the University of Ottawa and throughout the Ottawa Region. We congratulate Barbara on her award and for success in helping to bringa love of science into the hearts of countless young people.

To learn more about how you can get involved with Let’s Talk Science Outreach, please visit our webpage