The StemCellTalks event at the MaRS Centre in Toronto was one of the most exciting and successful outreach events the Stem Cell Network has catalysed in the past ten years. There was an energy in the room that prompted more than one of the attendees to comment that they had just participated in something quite special. As I look back on it a few days on, I think there were three elements of what Paul Cassar, David Grant, Angela McDonald and their wider team accomplished that were quite unique.
First, they developed some great content. Stem cell research is a difficult topic, yet they managed to create a varied and interesting program pitched at just the right level which kept the students fully engaged for a full day. It was evident that a lot of thought went into the program design, with more traditional lectures on Stem Cells 101, supplemented with videos from the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation and by three brand new case studies developed by the team, which prompted students to examine different aspects of the science and ethics of stem cell research. The case studies were introduced by two leading scientists who debated opposing perspectives of the “right” stem-cell based approach to treating diabetes and leukemia. What this approach highlighted in an entertaining and engaging manner is that (i) science moves fast – is a living breathing body of knowledge that is being expanded every day and (ii) prominent scientists who respect each others work enormously can also profoundly disagree on why some things work the way they do. There is not always a “right” answer, and the experimentation/scientific method is the key to understanding more.
Second, it is difficult to adequately communicate the scale and scope with which this event was conceived by Paul, Angela and David. The team persuaded some of the best scientists and ethicists from across the country to come to Toronto for the event, and picked them not just based on their academic prowess, but also their ability to communicate effectively with a high school audience. Prior to the day they made more than 40 classroom visits across the GTA to present an introduction to stem cell research to hundreds of students and to talk about the March event for those who had a particular interest. They ran a selection process to recruit the most interested students to the event –133 of them, and the enthusiasm and the quality of the questions reflected that this was a job very well done. The team also recruited close to 100 volunteers from across several faculties to support the event. More than 50 were in attendance on the day facilitating small break-out sessions for the high school students, and managing the logistics of the event, while another 50 had been engaged in the build up to and organization of the event.
Third, is the commitment of the team to build this into an ongoing program. With all the planning this event took, it would have been very easy for the team to have focused its efforts on just the one day. However, from the outset the team was thinking how to “productise” StemCellTalks as they branded the project. They raised money to ensure that the event was videoed, so, for example, the scientists introductions to the case students could be developed into short videos for Curiocity.ca to complement the written material. In addition, facilitators’ notes are being consolidated to provide future volunteers with further case study material, in effect, a how-to guide for managing the event. Furthermore, at the Stem Cell Network’s annual meeting last November, the team recruited volunteers from Vancouver, Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax to come to Toronto to participate in the event, with a commitment from each of them that they would roll out StemCellTalks in those cities within a 12-month time frame. Finally, as if that wasn’t enough, in parallel Paul volunteered to get directly involved in developing a separate website – stemcellschool.org – which was launched at the event, and is aimed enabling teachers and students to study many broader biology concepts through the lens of stem cell research. The site will complement the Let’s Talk Science materials being developed.
View the video summary from Paul Cassar and David Grant:
The event itself came off without a hitch, which when you consider the number of people involved, the number of moving parts, speaks volumes to the team’s project management and communications skills. I think more than anything the event taught me that you cannot “buy” enthusiasm and commitment. You can only seek to recognize it, enable it, support it, and get out of the way! Paul and his team pulled off something quite special last week, and in doing so have energized students across the country to replicate his ideas and approach. I am convinced several of the 133 high school students in attendance will want to be stem cell researchers when they “grow up”. As an organization, it is also causing us to revisit our outreach strategies and consider what more we can do to identify and support the evident enthusiasm there is out there amongst our own graduate student body.
If you attended the event and enjoyed it, post a reply to the blog and let us know your thoughts. And if you have your own ideas on how to spread the word about stem cell research, and have a novel idea for a high school event, or one for the general public, contact us at the Network office, we would love to hear from you.
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