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In May 2016 Anand Mahadevan received the Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence.  Firefly nominated Anand for this well deserved recognition based on our experience working with him over the last five years on our summer camp, Bright Lights in the Lab.  We asked Anand to tell us about what Bright Lights has come to mean to him and here is what he had to say:

Since 2012, I’ve had the privilege of working with the Firefly Foundation on developing Bright Lights in the Lab, Canada’s first research-based neuroscience summer camp for school-aged children.

Children are curious and innovative. They want to know how the world works, and how they are going to find their place within it. Often, this figuring out involves making mistakes. How do we as teachers celebrate these mistakes and encourage our students to keep at the task of changing themselves, thus help bring change to the world they will create?

Scientific Inquiry is an excellent model for learning about the world and oneself through making mistakes. Inquiry refers to the activities of students in which they develop knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas, as well as an understanding of how scientists study the natural world. Inquiry is a multifaceted activity that involves making observations; posing questions; examining books and other sources of information to see what is already known; planning investigations; reviewing what is already known in light of experimental evidence; using tools to gather, analyze, and interpret data; proposing answers, explanations, and predictions; and communicating the results (National Research Council, 1996).

Bright Lights in the Lab is a summer camp devoted to celebrating failure and providing time and space for students to explore their passion for science. For two weeks in the summer, for seven hours every day, students review current scientific knowledge, pose their own questions, learn to use tools to design their own experiments, and collect data. We pair them with graduate students and post-doctoral candidates, and let them perform research in an environment free of grades and exams. Students realize that science is a collaborative, iterative process that requires both risk-taking and hard work. Brilliant insights can come at any time in the process and to anyone involved in the process.

There are no marks or grades in our camp. Thus, students are free to explore the process of science rather than focus on the product of their research. The research projects are open-ended and student-directed and thus our campers feel they “own” their own learning and thus routinely come early or stay past camp hours to get the most data or the best representation of their results.

We began the camp with 20 students and now have over 60 students sign up each summer. These students come from all around the Greater Toronto Area as well as from the USA and China. Part of our challenge in this collaborative team of teachers from UTS, researchers from the University of Toronto, and our non-profit partners at the Firefly Foundation is to reach out to more students from across Canada, to make time and tools available to all students who want to inquire and grow. For the last two years, we’ve begun offering scholarships to students in the GTA with our partners, the Fulbright Canada/US Embassy Ottawa Community Leadership Program and Rotman Graduate Business Council bursaries. This year with the support of the Rotman School of Management and Firefly’s fundraising efforts we will continue this tradition.

Our hope is to grow both the summer camp and the scholarship program so that students across Canada and in other countries can benefit from camps like this in their cities. Our students dream of being future leaders and change-makers, and my dream is to provide as many students the space and time they need to make their dreams come true.

Works Cited

National Research Council. (1996). National Science Education Standards. Washington DC: National Academy Press.

2015 Prime Ministers Award in Teaching Excellence

University of Toronto Schools Press Release