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UC staff take STEM learning to the regions with microscope donations and citizen science outreach

Suzanne Lazaroo

2 August 2023: When Samantha Bronar – a Student Engagement and Work Integrated Learning Advisor at the University of Canberra – realised that her old school was still using the same microscopes she herself used over 30 years ago, she figured the Faculty of Science and Technology could help with an equipment update.

Last week, faculty staff took a special trip to Young High School (YHS) to donate microscopes and conduct science outreach activities and training – all to spark and support an interest in STEM among students.

“When we ran the enviro science session during Explore UC in March, I was talking to science teacher April Geromboux from YHS and realised they were still using the old microscopes that can take up to 20 minutes to set up for just one specimen – an injection of updated equipment seemed like a great way to help support YHS to practice STEM,” Ms Bronar said.

Working closely with Faculty Technical Officer (Biotechnology/Pathology) Michaela Popham, Ms Bronar knew that some lab microscopes at UC had been earmarked for donation and could be a good fit for YHS’ labs.

“We ended up with five compound and five dissecting microscopes for donation, plus specimen slides,” Ms Bronar said. With Young High School’s Head of Science and Agriculture Michelle Rathjen, she arranged a SciTech Microscope Donation and Engagement Day.

The compound microscopes are for microscopic specimens like bacteria, larvae and cells in human tissue; the dissecting microscopes can study larger microscopic specimens such as macroinvertebrates and crystals in rocks. The faculty also donated spare parts for the microscopes and a ‘water bug’ kit including net, trays, tweezers and specimen dishes.

Wanting the school science staff to be able to use the equipment with confidence, the faculty team set up a lab activity for 70 students from Years 10 to 12 Biology, Chemistry and Environmental Studies, and provided training on the day for YHS science teachers.

The faculty also made an ongoing commitment to provide free regular servicing for the microscopes, plus any phone and email support they may subsequently require.

“Michaela, Senior Technical Officer Pat Ceeney – who also has family in Young – and I took water samples from Burrangong Creek, about 800 metres out of town, as well as Young Weir in town,” Ms Bronar said.

Over five separate lab sessions, the students and teachers analysed the health of the water by tallying the type and amount of macroinvertebrates in them.

The lab sessions were delivered by Domestic Student Recruitment Advisor Luke Doldissen – also an alumnus of YHS, Mr Doldissen graduated with a Bachelor of Science (Environmental Science) from the University of Canberra in 2022.

The data from the citizen science sessions was collated and participants were encouraged to repeat the water assessment activities in the future, for a longitudinal comparison.

“As citizen scientists, the staff and students could keep a record of their findings over time, then use them to petition the local Council to look into ways to clean up the waterways, if they get results that indicate contamination,” Ms Bronar said.

Students and teachers were encouraged to continue to be ‘citizen scientists’, performing regular assessments of their water ways with a view to petitioning the local council to address water quality.

“This program was about ‘paying it forward’ with the assistance of the Faculty of Science and Technology,” Ms Bronar said. “Rural and remote school students and their teachers don’t always have the same access to resources as their city counterparts, which can put them at a disadvantage to not only engage with STEM, but to be able to practise it.”

“The ’cherry on top’ – pun intended, Young is considered Australia’s ‘cherry capital’ – was to see Luke, as an alumnus of both YHS and UC, deliver the workshops and talk about his university science journey. We hope this event and Luke’s journey inspired the YHS students.”

Photos by Samantha Bronar and Rebecca Hewson.