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Discover the Universe

What’s a surefire way to get young people interested in science?

At U of T’s Dunlap Institute, we think we have the key—and it involves the “gateway science,” astronomy

In Obedjiwan, Quebec, a community of the Atikamekw Nation 10 hours north of Montreal, there are 180 high school students, and one science teacher, Janie Simard. She also teaches computer science, math—a bit of everything.

It’s not the easiest teaching job. With a high drop-out rate and few economic opportunities, keeping students engaged can be tough. But one thing that helps is astronomy.

“The students have a lot of questions,” Simard says. “They want to understand how the sky works, why this morning we saw the moon in the morning, and two weeks ago we saw the moon in the evening but not in the morning.”

Simard is an astronomy enthusiast, but even for her, developing original teaching materials for her students is a daunting task. That’s why she’s a regular participant in Discover the Universe, an innovative teacher-training program run in partnership with U of T’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics.

“Discover the Universe gives me tricks to improve the way I teach astronomy,” says Simard. “For example, to show the phases of the moon, take a ball and shine a light on it. It works a lot better than just showing pictures.”

Discover the Universe offers free online classes in English and French to teachers across Canada and around the world—anyone who is involved in teaching astronomy.

The program’s bread-and-butter workshop is a three-week course on teaching Canada’s national astronomy curriculum for middle schools. But coordinator Julie Bolduc-Duval is constantly innovating—putting together webinars on the latest phenomena and developments, such as the August 2017 solar eclipse and the Cassini Mission to Saturn.

“I find that the gap is way too big between what scientists do—their cutting-edge research—and what the general public knows,” she says. The solution to that is better teaching, and that means better teacher training.

“More than half of elementary school teachers never teach astronomy, even though it’s on the curriculum,” she says. “They have no training, they don’t feel competent, and they don’t know of any resources. My job is to help the teachers, so they feel more comfortable teaching astronomy to their students.”

Discover the Universe has been offering workshops since 2011, and in 2016 the Dunlap Institute became the primary partner for the program, adding the expertise of U of T’s astronomers, chiefly Dunlap’s Coordinator of Public Outreach and Education, Prof. Michael Reid.

For the Dunlap Institute, the program is a perfect fit.

“We want young people to understand the value of astronomy,” says Reid. “We want them to feel some connection to the results of our research, and to know why we are doing this. We couldn’t have that connection if we didn’t have these programs that reach out to people and share what we’re doing with them.”

Discover the Universe has proven its worth—2,500 teachers across Canada have taken its workshops—but with donor support, it could do so much more: make sure every science teacher across Canada knows about the program, offer more workshops, and create new content. For example, Bolduc-Duval hopes to raise enough funds for a new unit on indigenous astronomy.

All that would help bring astronomy—and a love of learning—to more and more children across Canada. And this is why we are asking you to support Discover the Universe.

“I love science, and when I talk to my students they see that I love science,” says teacher Janie Simard. “To see someone who is passionate about knowledge, who is interested, who loves to learn, that gives them the desire to learn. When they understand something, they get a big smile, and they want to continue to learn.”

Support the Dunlap Institute’s Discover the Universe program

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Lauren Diez d’Aux 
Senior Development Officer
Faculty of Arts and Science
t:  416-978-2720

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About U of T Astronomy


The Dunlap Institute focuses on the design, fabrication and implementation of astronomical instrumentation, on observational research, on training the next generation of astronomers, and on public education. It was founded in 2008 thanks to a generous gift from the Dunlap Family. Learn more 


Hosted by U of T, CITA is a nationally supported research centre for studies in theoretical astrophysics, including the origin and evolution of the universe, and the many other phenomena revealed by modern astronomy. Learn more 


The department is Canada’s preeminent home for teaching and research on solar system dynamics, stars, stellar systems, the interstellar medium, the galaxy, quasars, galaxy clusters and cosmology. Learn more 


Lauren Diez d’Aux
Senior Development Officer
Faculty of Arts and Science

t: 416-978-2720