Brian DixonResearchers at the University of Waterloo are connecting to elementary and high school students, even those in the most remote communities in Ontario, through a video conferencing program called Virtual Researcher On Call (VROC.)

“Although teaching is an ancient profession, it has always been about the connection between the teacher and the student. I think this harnesses technology in a good way to make that connection,” says Brian Dixon, a University of Waterloo biologist in the Faculty of Science.

VROC was first introduced by a non-profit group called Partners in Research in 2006 to connect elementary and secondary students with researchers. More recently, Partners in Research introduced ExpertBook, a database that participating teachers can use to access experts in the fields of science, technology, engineering or math. Gary Goodyear, Canada’s Minister of State, Federal Economic Development Agency for Ontario, was on campus on Friday Sept. 6 to announce the launch of ExpertBook.

Dixon, who is also a Canada Research Chair in Fish and Environmental Immunology, is one of several Ontario researchers inspiring young people through VROC. Some other Waterloo experts involved include: Frank Gu, Jeff Orchard, Richard Hughson and Mary Wells.

Virtual connection is like Skype

The technology is similar to Skype, Dixon explains. A call comes in and he can choose not to take it if he doesn’t want to be disturbed. So far, that’s never happened. When he takes the call, Dixon is beamed into a classroom.                   

“I can see the classroom and they can see me. It’s like I’m at the front of the class with 30 kids. It’s awesome…because I’m there and I can wave my hands and get excited,” says Dixon.

Sometimes a school might call and book 15 minutes of Dixon’s time for a certain day or they might call out of the blue and say, “We had 10 minutes at the end of the class and wanted to ask a question.

“My favourite is a class of Grade 7 students. They called before Halloween and asked if it’s possible to have human zombies. I said, ‘For humans no, but there is actually a parasite in a crab that gets inside the crab and controls the crab’s brain and makes the crab’s legs move, so crab zombies – absolutely’.”

So, a question vaguely related to science leads to a discussion. Dixon tries to connect his answers to issues of the day, so it becomes not only a lesson in science but also good citizenship.