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Fenster, Harpp, Schwarcz earn first McNeil Medal.

The Royal Society of Canada has awarded its inaugural McNeil Medal for the Public Awareness of Science to Drs. Ariel Fenster, David Harpp and Joseph Schwarcz. The three are well known for their stage show The Magic of Chemistry which blends slides, music, chemical demonstrations and magic to introduce the public to the history and many applications of chemistry.

The McNeil Medal was established by the Royal Society of Canada in partnership with McNeil Consumer Products Co., a division of Johnson & Johnson, to highlight the important role science plays within our society and to encourage the communication of science to students and the public.

The presentation was made to the Montreal professors during the Society's Turn On to Science workshop, held in October in Ottawa. The workshop focused on the relationship between scientific discovery, communication and education.

Science Education: Strategies for the Year 2000 was the subject for the first panel. There is some good news, according to Stephen Tobe, associate dean of science, University of Toronto. Interest in science streams has shown a marked improvement in 1992 after falling dramatically after 1985. Prior to this, the student population was generally split 40% arts, 40% science, 20% commerce. By 1988, the science ratio was down to less than 30%. However, this year, enrolment in science streams is up to 44%. The number of women enrolled is still dismally low. For example, in physics, the first year split is usually 50:50 female:male. In second year, it is 25:75. By third year, the figure has dropped to fewer than 10% female.

Students representatives attending the workshop as part of the Encounter with Canada Program contributed to the panel. What are they looking for?

* The practical application of science, instead of just theory, as part of their courses;

* Students are bored: How can the science curriculum be changed to instill excitement in teaching?

* Comprehension of theory, not just memorization, is important. Students should be able to understand concepts.

The teachers' viewpoint came from Paul Barron, Canadian Association for Science Education. He noted that teachers in one province have trouble finding out what teachers in another are doing because of the way the Canadian educational system is structured, i.e., education is provincial jurisdiction. (Historically, it has been one of the most zealously guarded provincial rights.)

He said that we need to integrate more technology with science in teaching theory and problem-solving. How does science interact with the environment, economics and politics? Interactions with industry also need to be looked at more seriously.

Other panelists echoed what had been said about technology. One excellent example was given. If a secretary's job has been so affected by new technology -- PCs, fax machines, electronic mail -- what about everyone else? Competition is worldwide. Company X needs to know how to better service, develop and deliver their product and do it cheaper, faster and better.

As someone noted, all the panelists were saying almost the same thing so is the problem really insurmountable?

A second panel Interfaces Between Research and Communications featured David Crane, business editor, Toronto Star. He said that journalists need to be scientifically literate to a degree they've never been before. There is the need to understand science in terms of everyday life. In the future, jobs and economic progress will depend on science and technology. Opportunities and the best jobs, not only for scientists and engineers, will go to those who understand science.

Crane added that what the scientific community needs to understand is that there must be significance and context in the way a discovery is presented. "They must accept questioning and they must accept that there will be skepticism."

It is the media's responsibility to present timely and informed news of science. Ideas and discoveries in the scientific field tend to be complicated, therefore, science writing can be very difficult. Still, Crane noted, people want to read a good story.

Claudette MacKay-Lassonde, Ontario ministry of culture and communications, said that the public associates research with pure research and that doesn't mean anything to them. "People want to know what the significance is to them."

She said scientists need to be less "purist" and need to have a public persona. A TV show titled "Magnum P. Eng" would be a big help, she said. Although it drew a lot of laughs, it made the point perfectly.

Researchers need to look beyond the published paper and the "problem of the month", MacKay-Lassonde added.

It took a journalist to make a final point. Crane said that curiosity research, basic research, is still fundamental because it leads to going off in new directions. There is pressure on university scientists to show that their research has immediate industrial pay-off and that's dangerous.
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Title Annotation:McNeil Medal for the Public Awareness of Science
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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