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Becoming a Golden Hawk means more than just cheering on our (really good) varsity teams – it means being a student who cares about your community, who works hard in the classroom, and who takes advantage of all the learning opportunities that can happen outside the classroom, too.

Nov. 7, 2018

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To some, using social media looks like frivolous time spent online. But for a classroom of third- and fourth-grade students in Waterloo, social media has all the answers.

Prabjhot Kaur, a teacher at Mary Johnston Public Elementary School, tweets science-related questions raised by her eight- and nine-year-old students to Wilfrid Laurier University’s Department of Biology Twitter account. It is a strategy Kaur employs when she doesn’t have the answers to some of the more complex questions her students ask, and one that has piqued classroom curiosity in the life sciences.

Kaur, who began tweeting to the faculty in 2016, has brought forward student questions about why seeds grow during germination and how pitcher plants can attract insects.

“I tell my students that just because I don’t have the answers doesn’t mean that someone else won’t,” says Kaur. “It is beneficial for students to see that there are experts in our community who are willing to help get the answers they need. It also shows them that their questions matter.”

Answering those questions most often is @LaurierBiology account administrator and associate professor of biology Tristan Long. Long, an avid tweeter, has a knack for communicating scientific content in engaging ways and is well known for his vibrant, hand-drawn posters that advertise the Biology Department’s seminar series. When replying to Kaur’s students, he takes just as much in care answering their questions as he does creating his posters.

“The replies we get from Laurier are so detailed and include great visuals,” says Kaur. “That is so helpful for the students and helps bring the subject matter to life.”

In an Oct. 4 tweet to Laurier Biology, Kaur’s class asked if there are any plants that can grow in the dark. A brief answer could have sufficed but Long went beyond a basic reply and maxed out the 280-word count of a tweet, explaining the process of etiolation (a plant’s development in the dark and its attempt to find sunlight) in plain language with grade-appropriate visuals. An animated sun image accompanies a tweeted reply about plants’ need for sunlight while another animated tweet answers why mushrooms are exempt from the sunshine requirement.

Tweets from Sept. 20 and 24 also exemplify Long’s informative and entertaining responses.

“Our planet is teeming with an incredible amount of biological diversity, which often goes unappreciated; it is wonderful to encounter curiosity about the species and their adaptations from members of our community,” says Long. “In my experience, both as an instructor and as a parent, I know that answers beget more questions, so the best way to encourage more inquiries is to offer detailed replies. I have been impressed with the observations and insights that Ms. Kaur’s students have made and am happy to help them on their journey of discovery.”

Laurier science students have also sparked a relationship with students at Kaur’s school by judging projects at the school’s annual spring science fair. Making time to educate and inspire young minds in the community is something biology professor and department chair Matt Smith is proud of.

“Laurier’s undergraduate and graduate science students are very enthusiastic about volunteering to serve as judges at the Mary Johnston Public School science fair every year,” says Smith. “It’s a wonderful way for Laurier students to help foster an interest in science in the local community. The projects are always interesting and well done, and the students are enthusiastic and excited about sharing their findings with scientists from the community.”

Kaur says she plans to continue tweeting to Laurier’s Biology department with future classes of students; the replies lead to exciting classroom conversations on topics not always covered in the provincial science curriculum.

The most impactful answer Kaur’s students have received since she began tweeting has nothing to do with plants, bugs or seeds, she says.

“Learning that scientists like the ones at Laurier were also in grade three once really gets their attention and it opens their eyes to what they could be doing one day, too.”


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