Burke helps ignite a passion for science

The irony that Kristy Burke (BSc '08) had no room for science in her youth is not lost on the University of Lethbridge's manager of youth science programs. In fact, it's that awareness that she could have used a science mentor that pushes her in her role today.

"I personally hated science and did everything I could to avoid it when I was in high school," says Burke, recognized as one of the 2012 Mentor of the Millenium award winners by the Alberta Women's Science Network.

"When it came to finding a job, I looked back at the choices I made in school and the things I eventually became interested in, and realized I should have taken Bio 12 and Chem 12, all these courses I ended up having to take as an adult."

Kristy Burke
Kristy Burke earns a Mentor of the Millenium Award for her role in science community outreach programs.

Burke, who grew up primarily in Prince George, B.C., eventually became interested in the environment, earning a diploma from Selkirk College in recreation, fish and wildlife. She translated that into a degree in environmental science at the U of L, took a year off to have her first baby, and then began working in her current role in 2008.

The University's youth science programming (now celebrating its 10th anniversary) had already made great strides in its first six years, but there was room for much more growth.

"It was originally just programs offered in the four summer months, but now we have a variety of clubs, Operation Minerva, we do birthday parties, we've been running workshops throughout January and February, we really are busy year-round," says Burke. "I think there was a demand for it because there's not a lot of science outreach outside of the University."

Igniting a passion for science, and having the resources to fuel that passion, is what the programs are all about. Burke wants kids to see the doors that open up for those who have a breadth of science knowledge.

"Science is often made so difficult for them at the lower levels that they get turned off of it," she says. "Our first goal is to have fun and to make fun somehow related to learning. We try to support the curriculum in a lot of our programs and sometimes it's just a matter of getting their hands dirty and getting into it. Often, their teachers don't have the resources or the time to do the programming and if they are home schooled, science is really hard for parents to teach."

A mother of two, Burke understands how important it is to create early positive experiences for children. She is especially interested in encouraging young girls and minority students to pursue scientific careers.

"A lot of girls want careers where they can help and contribute to the public good and they haven't been able to make that connection with science careers," says Burke. "With Operation Minerva, they get to see real people, real women as scientists, and it humanizes the profession for them."

Operation Minerva and Operation Minerva for Aboriginal Girls are programs she's invested a lot of time in promoting. They act as mentorship programs for young girls interested in science.

Burke is currently working on a master's degree in education under the tutelage of Dr. Leah Fowler. Her focus is the effectiveness of the Operation Minerva programs and whether they translate to young girls pursuing scientific careers. She is hoping to interview girls who have gone through the programs and eventually show up as U of L students.

As she looks ahead, she envisions reaching even more youth through science outreach by bringing disadvantaged children into the fold.

"I think the direction a lot of science outreach is going is towards breaking barriers, to kids who don't have a lot of access to science," says Burke. "A lot of that is girls or underprivileged children whose parents can't afford to send them to camps. We want to open that world to them."


• U of L science outreach began with a sleepover camp 10 years ago that invited 16 kids to campus. Our programming now reaches up to 1,500 children per year

• Burke is thankful for the faculty support the program receives. "We have a very strong history of people who have always supported the program and continue to do so, and now I'd like to see if we can find some new faces to take some of the pressure off those who continually volunteer."

• Of the many science camp moments Burke recalls, she points to CCBN Research Manager Donna McLaughlin bringing her chickens and mini ponies to campus and teaching kids about behavioural training as a highlight

This story first appeared in the April 2012 issue of the Legend. To view the full issue in a flipbook format, follow this link.