Written by Deena Douara

Makeshift devices that pick up marshmallows, gaseous substances overflowing, a spinning robot — the little projects that make kids ooh and ahh — if that was the kind of science class you were exposed to.

What brings science lessons to life are enthusiastic teachers and hands-on experiments, but labs and activities require resources, and not all neighbourhoods have them. 

The Pueblo Science team can attest to that. Co-founder Mayrose Salvador grew up in a Philippine village.

“Science is still being taught very theoretically; teachers lift it from textbooks because there’s no resources and no good training; so it’s something boring; abstract and super hard,” she says. “Education goes on the back burner if people don’t have enough to eat.”

But Salvador was lucky to have Mrs. Daquioag — a Grade 6 teacher that changed everything for her with experiments as simple as creating mosquito repellant out of leaves.

img_4949b_webYears later she would meet another inspirational teacher in Prof. Cynthia Goh, who taught Salvador quantum mechanics in a practical way while on sabbatical in her native Philippines.

While later doing research at the University of Toronto under Goh, the two founded Pueblo Science so children could fall in love with science, but also to accomplish much more:

“Science is about appreciating and understanding the world around you. We’re trying to get them to think critically, asking questions … get that scientific way of thinking in their head. When they grow up we want them to be more critical about things around them like ads on T.V.

“The other thing is it definitely opens up a better career path; if you have a scientific background that’s an advantage.”

The team of volunteers has worked with rural communities in the Philippines, Thailand, India, Guyana and Bolivia, as well as with priority neighbourhoods in Ontario. They conduct training for teachers and lessons with students that include customized projects and experiments working with a region’s materials, curriculum and needs. For example, one community wanted help purifying their drinking water (from the river); another sought help in mapping air quality; yet another wanted support in composting.

One volunteer who’s been with Pueblo Science from its start six years ago is Emina Veletanlic, who immigrated from Bosnia after studying in Germany. She credits two great teachers who sparked her interests by using their industry background to create real-world problems and applicability. Through her studies she was introduced to U of T’s Impact Centre, which hosts Pueblo Science and other projects that help bring science into society.

Another volunteer is Calvin Cheng, who developed a strong math foundation growing up in Hong Kong before moving to Vancouver and finally Toronto, for university. He says Goh encouraged him to recognize science’s role in society.

“Having that science background helps us understand why things work the way they do. It’s like a puzzle.”

Stories from their travels show the team they’re doing something right. Like one teacher traveling 14 hours to attend a seminar. Or another, describing how an ice-cream-making lesson became a class business that funded further experimentation. Or a class of Grade 1 students “hugging and jumping around” after discovering the eggs they dropped from the second floor didn’t break because they successfully insulated them.

“They made a big commotion,” Salvador says. “It was super amazing.”

It is perhaps not in many cities that Salvador, Goh, Veletanlic, Cheng and the rest of the diverse team could have found themselves working together, and with the backing of a prestigious university. They say there is something special about Toronto that drew them here after living all over the world.

“There’s always opportunities here to help you reach your goal,” says Cheng.

Veletanlic adds that being in Toronto and working with the Impact Centre “opened up so many opportunities I wouldn’t have gotten elsewhere.

“You start feeling very privileged because you have the opportunities and education and everything you might want. It’s just been great.”

Pueblo Science says it’s developed over 150 experiments, involved over 700 volunteers, trained 2,000 teachers and engaged 140,000 students.