Youth Science Canada: A Reflection of Canadian STEM Fairs Through the Ages

Executive director Reni Barlow highlights the organization’s activities in support of Canada’s STEM youth.

The 59th edition of the Canada-Wide Science Fair took place last month, with 374 finalists and over 51,000 visitors convening to attend Youth Science Canada’s first ever all-virtual event. Almost $900,000 worth of awards and scholarships were distributed amongst 188 winners, of which Calvin Karthik and Hardit Singh won top prizes for their work in biogas production and teleophthalmology respectively. recently had the opportunity to speak with Reni Barlow, executive director at Youth Science Canada, on a variety of topics related to the STEM organization.

(Image courtesy of Reni Barlow.)

(Image courtesy of Reni Barlow.)

About Youth Science Canada

Youth Science Canada has been engaging Canadian youth through STEM projects since 1962, when the Canadian Science Fairs Council was first formed in response to the STEM fair movement that had started in the U.S. In 1964, the organization formalized into the Youth Science Foundation, which subsequently evolved to become Youth Science Canada (YSC). Today, YSC supports more than 500,000 students each year.

“It has grown from 10–15 regions to 105,” said Barlow. “We have a network of regional science fair organizations in every province and territory across the country, with about 8,000 volunteers.”

Canada’s regional fairs range significantly in size. Calgary, for example, used to bring together over 1,000 participants in pre-pandemic events. Conversely, the more isolated Northern regions would see 40–50 students.

Over the years, a wide range of sponsors have been involved in funding YSC activities, from petroleum and pharmaceutical companies to tech giants like Microsoft.

“The federal government plays a role—although not as big a role as they used to in the 80s and 90s,” described Barlow. “We get some pretty significant funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). The corporate community has really come on board, and we have Intact Financial, Cenovus Energy and Rogers as our major corporate sponsors.”

Despite its reach, YSC itself is an extremely small organization. “We only have three full-time staff,” revealed Barlow.

Throughout the year, a handful of contractors coordinate national programs including the Canada-Wide Science Fair (CWSF) and STEM Expo. STEM Expo is an area for sponsors, commercial organizations and government agencies to exhibit and host interactive STEM-related activities for students.

“We also operate an international program called Team Canada that sends students to represent the country at international youth STEM competitions,” said Barlow. “Then we have a professional development program called Smarter Science, that offers resources for teachers who are working to implement inquiry and STEM projects in their classrooms from kindergarten to Grade 12.”

(Image courtesy of Digital Pedagogy.)

(Image courtesy of Digital Pedagogy.)

In the full-day workshops, the Smarter Science framework introduces 35 STEM process skills that can be woven through the curriculum—not just in science, but in all subjects. Students are subsequently led through an investigation and encouraged to move on to projects.

“We also do a workshop around assessment and evaluation, because that’s a big concern for teachers,” added Barlow. “It’s pretty easy to give kids assignments out of a textbook and then mark them or give them a test, but it’s not so easy when kids are working on an independent project. We provide guidance on how to assess and evaluate the students’ work, progress and skills in that area. Then the final workshop is focused on using the Smarter Science framework to help kids be more creative and innovative.”

This year, YSC launched a new program called mySTEMspace, which helps students in getting started with their projects. After its relaunch in the fall, the platform will offer resources such as videos, courses and text guidance to students.

(Image courtesy of mySTEMspace.)

(Image courtesy of mySTEMspace.)

“Every time we ask, kids tell us the hardest part is getting started,” conveyed Barlow. “Figuring out what it is they’re going to investigate—whether it’s a question or a problem—and then just how to go about doing that.

“The mySTEMspace platform can also introduce students to our programs, along with opportunities that are offered by other STEM organizations around the country. The goal is for expansion through our network to provide community-based support. One of the things we’re suggesting is that regions consider having a monthly gathering—once we’re allowed to have gatherings—to bring kids together and provide them coaching and mentoring. Peer coaching is probably the most powerful thing, having kids talk to other kids with a little bit more experience, helping each other find a path to creating a successful project.”

Participating Students and Their Projects

Having been a science teacher for 15 years and a school principal for five, Barlow believes that research projects are crucial for the development of students’ careers.

“One of the challenges that educators have is engaging students and really getting them passionate and interested in every topic, particularly STEM,” explained Barlow. “Part of the problem is that the curriculum tends to be delivered in a way that’s rather structured. It’s focused on particular content and topics, and it tends to proceed in a fairly linear and not very exciting way.

“There are situations where teachers will assign a project to a student, or give them a topic, and we strongly discourage that. We want students to look around their home, their school, their community, the world, and identify something that they are personally interested in, in terms of a question that can be investigated or a problem that can be solved. We encourage them not to wait or think, ‘I can’t do this until I’m in high school’ or ‘I can’t do this until I’m in university’ or ‘I can’t do this until I have a degree.’ Get started now. These kids have amazing ideas, skills and knowledge, and they can apply those to very important problems and come up with some great solutions.

“In the end, it’s not even all that important that kids come up with groundbreaking, world-changing solutions. What really matters is that they go through the process, identify a question or problem, and then work through the solution around something that they actually care about—because in the long run, regardless of what they end up going into, that is likely to be what they end up doing. Almost everything ends up being some kind of project, whether it’s something you work on at home or something you work on through your career, whether it’s research or designing something. If you’re a lawyer, you’re working on a case; it’s still a project. And so, the skills that are built through that process are invaluable regardless of what students end up going into.”

There have been many success stories where YSC participants have taken their passion forward and contributed to solutions for problems.

“Adam Noble—who won the Best Project award in 2013—transformed his project into Noblegen, a multi-million-dollar company,” said Barlow. “He did that project when he was in Grade 11 or 12. His company is leading the world in terms of developing primarily food products, based on the work that he did with algae back when he was in high school. Then we’ve had Roberta Bondar, Canada’s first female astronaut, who was a participant in the second Canada-Wide Science Fair in 1963. She said it helped define her career, her life. Another one of our CWSF alumni, Kyle Doerksen, founded a company in Santa Clara, California called Onewheel. He invented the motorized skateboard with the big fat wheel in the middle.

(Image courtesy of Onewheel.)

(Image courtesy of Onewheel.)

“In our award ceremony this year, we used something called HearMeCheer, which was developed by a CWSF alumnus during the pandemic because he realized that there were going to be events happening—athletic events, sporting events, large-crowd events—but with no crowd. So he thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if people could cheer from home?’ You could blend that together and then feed it into the broadcast of the event, or into the arena. He’s worked with ESPN, and we used his technology in our award ceremony as well.”

According to Barlow, CWSF projects tend to follow certain trends regarding what’s going on in the world.

“Obviously, we had quite a few COVID-related projects this year,” said Barlow. “Microplastics is another one that’s been popular for a couple of years. In the last five years, there’s been a real growth in the use of artificial intelligence, machine learning and image recognition to solve problems, from medical diagnosis to a whole variety of applications.”

Pre-Pandemic STEM Events Versus Virtual Events

Before the days of COVID-19 and social distancing, in-person CWSF events would involve a mixture of activities that would physically take place at a university or conference center location in either Fredericton, Ottawa or Edmonton. After the judging process would be complete, students would go for tours of the community, visiting science centers, universities and labs. Networking events would ultimately culminate into award ceremonies, after which there would be a public viewing of projects by schools and other visitors including friends, parents and grandparents.

“With the in-person Canada-Wide Science Fair, we typically get between about 7,000–10,000 visitors every year,” said Barlow. “This year, by having projects, activities and the STEM Expo available online, we registered over 51,000 visitors. As far as we can tell from the metrics, between 40,000–45,000 actually showed up and participated. So, as we go forward, we’re looking to make the event hybrid. Students would still physically come to the CWSF. We would still bring physical visitors to the event, but then also open it up to those 50,000—maybe more—visitors who could experience the fair in a way that has never been possible before.

“I think that’s very much going to be the trend worldwide. I’m involved with youth STEM organizations at the international level as well, and everybody’s trying to figure out how to do this well. Even past the pandemic, people are realizing that there’s incredible power in making the events available to a broader public and showing what kids are able to do.”

Barlow proceeded to tell a story about the types of shenanigans that could transpire in an in-person event.

“In one CWSF event, we launched an app that enabled students to gamify the fair experience,” recounted Barlow. “Every finalist had a code on the back of their name tag, and you could get points by meeting other finalists, chatting with them, and entering their code in the app. You could go to the STEM Expo exhibits and get a code. If you found various things around the university, you could get a code. It became quite competitive.

“There was a group of three to four finalists—and this kind of typifies the kids that we deal with—who decided that it would be interesting to see if they could hack the game. These students had met at the fair, and decided to create a software bot that would rapidly and randomly guess the codes and enter them into the app for points. Unfortunately, it turned out to be rather successful; in fact, they entered so many codes that their bot crashed the server of the company that ran the app. There was one poor engineer who had to stay up all night at the company, restarting their server every half hour because this bot kept crashing their server.

“The next day, after I heard from the company, I went and had a little chat with the team and said, ‘You know, I absolutely admire your initiative. You’ve got amazing skills in terms of coding. It’s awesome that you did this, very clever, and congratulations, but shut it down right now.’ They were embarrassed that they’d been caught, but it kind of shows the creativity and ingenuity that comes out in the students, especially when they get together. They start brainstorming ideas, and that happens quite spontaneously at the Canada-Wide Fair, fairly regularly. Not all of them end up hacking servers though.”

The Canada-Wide Science Fair virtual lobby on ProjectBoard.

The Canada-Wide Science Fair virtual lobby on ProjectBoard.

As for the virtual display of projects, YSC utilized ProjectBoard (owned and developed by for 2020 and 2021’s CWSF events. While 2020’s science fair could not be fully implemented due to the rapid pivot that YSC had to take when canceling STEM events, students were still able to share their projects on the platform.

“There were no cash prizes or big awards—just some virtual ribbons,” said Barlow. “We had judging at three levels: the regional level, the national YSC level, and then we also invited our sponsors to judge projects that addressed specific challenges. This year, with a year to prepare, our goal was to offer a full CWSF experience as much as possible—with all the activities, events, tours, judging and awards ceremony. With ProjectBoard’s online STEM fair, we were able to really leverage what we learned, ramp that up to another level with the Canada-Wide Science Fair, and extend that ability to host projects out to our regional fairs as well.

“We ended up with 30–40 regional fairs putting projects on ProjectBoard. Even some of the ones that said they weren’t going to, were putting projects on ProjectBoard as part of their registration for the Canada-Wide Science Fair. So, we were really pleased with the uptake and the way it all worked out.”

Barlow believes that next year’s CWSF, which will take place in May 2022, will be held remotely again. “Although we have our fingers crossed that we’ll be able to hold a physical event, realistically we are almost 95–99 percent sure it’s going to be virtual again, just because there are so many challenges associated with bringing large groups of people to a location on the heels of a global pandemic. It’s probably going to be 2023 before we have a physical event.”

Student projects for 2021’s Canada-Wide Science Fair are still available for viewing. To explore the diverse range of inspirational projects, click here.