A chorus of delighted “ewww!”s spreads across the lecture room as a group of Grade 6-7 students insert gloved fingers into the chambers of the pig hearts laid out on trays in front of them.

They’re performing detailed examinations of the anatomical features of the valves, arteries, veins, ventricles and atria to get a sense of how the circulation of blood runs from the heart, to the lungs and to the rest of the body. It’s hands-on learning at its grossest and it’s happening in July, long after school is done for the year.

The students are part of a week-long science summer camp run by the Biomedical Youth Program (BYP) – an initiative of the University of Manitoba’s Rady Faculty of Health Sciences. The BYP fulfills the University of Manitoba’s mandate for community outreach by working with Winnipeg School Division teachers and science consultants to engage and inspire Winnipeg’s inner-city youth and expose them to science enrichment programming.

“There’s an equation that education equals jobs equals health,” says James Gilchrist, professor and director of BYP, and head of the Inner City Science Centre. “For me, it’s all about creating a sustained curiosity in kids. I feel compelled because interest in science really supports our technological future.”

The science summer camp is just one of the many programs run by BYP. The star of the show is the high technology science laboratories of the Inner City Science Centre, located at Niji Mahkwa School. “This centre is a bit of a jewel, it’s not something that we have anywhere else in the province,” says Gilchrist.

Established in 2008, the Centre is a partnership project involving the inner-city community in which it is based, the Winnipeg School Division, Manitoba Education, the Winnipeg Foundation, and the College of Medicine at the University of Manitoba. The goal of the Centre is to engage Winnipeg’s inner-city youth in collaborative lab-based activities to enhance the experience of science as a hands-on subject and broaden their career aspirations.

“The idea was to create this laboratory space with high end equipment and resources. We work hand in hand with the Winnipeg School Division and it’s an important partnership that we have with them. We have some pretty fantastic pieces of equipment and we offer that little bit extra to those that want it – the experience for our kids is first-class.”

The programs at the Inner City Science Centre are voluntary and the bulk of the programming happens after school. However, interested teachers can bring their Grade 5-12 students during school hours and the BYP will design a program for them. Activities include chemical reactions, immune and protein detection, population genetics, learning about the periodic table, bases and acids, DNA, concepts of diffusion and osmosis, activities with blood and the use of microscopes – to name a few.

If some of these concepts sound advanced for younger kids – that’s intentional.

“We take some fairly interesting topics and then try to draw the relevance to everyday life,” says Gilchrist. “It’s a series of activities that is designed in having kids touch and do stuff. It’s hands on and very little in the way of lectures. It’s a combination of discussions, videos, presentations and hands-on lab stuff. We essentially expose them to university type learning.”

The programs are supplemented by input from university students, leaders in the field and partnerships with the scientific community such as the National Microbiology Lab.

While the Centre was established for Winnipeg’s inner city which has a large indigenous and immigrant population, it is also open to kids from other school divisions across the city and province.

“I’ve done presentations to a lot of schools,” says Gilchrist. “For example, Sunrise School Division brought some students up here and we gave them half a day of different activities where they learned about DNA and how to isolate it, and the structure of it. It was way beyond what they would have at their schools.”

The program also offers mentoring and leadership experiences to undergrad and graduate students, and will be opening mentoring opportunities to high school students as well.

And, at its core, one of its mandates is to engage communities as well. “We have this great facility here and we have to open the doors and grab people and pull them in,” says Gilchrist. “We do that within the meaningful setting of Niji Mahkwa School. It’s such a unique school and it is the cultural home of Indigenous schooling, being on the same footprint of the Children of the Earth School. And as we go along we try to make more and more connections with Indigenous communities and reach out and invite the kids to come to our programs and our camps.”

BYP offers a Saturday Science Club at the Inner City Science Centre where kids have access to three hours of science programming every weekend throughout the school year. It also works in conjunction with the Health Career Quest – a math, health, and science program that aims to assist northern high school students in achieving a career in health care. In addition, it hosts two summer camps – one in Winnipeg and a mobile camp in Northern Manitoba, as well as the Junior Doctors Camp run in conjunction with the Winnipeg Aboriginal Sports Achievement Centre (WASAC). This past winter, kids from Isaac Newton School who were registered with WASAC attended 13 weeks of activities.

“We took them through everything – these were Grade 7 and 8 kids doing very high schoolish stuff. Isaac Newton School had never had a student present a project at the Winnipeg School Division Science Fair until these kids. Five students wanted to present their projects that year.”

Gilchrist recalls a student who got interested in the story of Rosalind Franklin who was one of the four people who discovered DNA.

“She was the scientist who sat in front of X-ray equipment trying to get is shadow images of DNA and it was her image of Photo 51 that proved that the natural structure of DNA is a double helix.

“I told this story about how Rosalind Franklin did all this work in finding important clues but unfortunately she ended up dying of ovarian cancer due to the xray exposure. But they don’t award Nobel prizes posthumously, so she never got an award. So there was a Grade 7 girl in the class who was so impacted by this story and she decided that she would write a story about this for her project which she called ‘Unsung Heros’. So she built a structure that was like a trophy, and in the Centre she built a double helix in Indigenous colours, and there was a door that opened and inside was Photo 51.”

This is the kind of stuff that really makes my day, when you ask the question of ‘what is your impact’ – this is the impact.”

“We’re not trying to pressure anyone. The way we try to teach is fun, we don’t want them to be intimidated by science. I think what we try to do is raise their curiosity and encourage them to ask as many questions as they can. We don’t talk about whether or not they’re going to be scientists one day. We just show them that the activities we do in science are actually quite interesting.”