Chemical engineer and co-founder of Biofuel Innovations Dr Rebecca Yee shares her excitement about inspiring a new generation of truth-seekers and tinkerers through CSIRO’s Scientists in Schools program.

Being passionate about something often means you want to share it. I love science as the process that helps us understand the world around us.

While doing a PhD in chemical engineering, the dryness of academic writing, politics of conferences and the general bureaucratic paperwork required to graduate started to put me off. I wanted to get out of this field, because a future in this area seemed so dull. I missed the feeling of being excited just to learn something new.

Then I found out about the Scientists and Mathematicians in Schools program. Run by the CSIRO, they put scientists in touch with primary and secondary schools. There’s no strict regime – Scientists in Schools is just a network of scientists and educators with a shared goal: to excite the new generation about science.

I was first paired with a regional school outside of Wollongong. We emailed and Skyped to discuss how we could work together. Deanna, their grade 5/6 teacher, was an amazing science advocate. She had already arranged the school to partner with a nearby dairy farm so that the kids could learn about calving. Each kid was assigned a cow and tracked their milk production over the year – what a great way to learn about data collection. I was thrilled when Deanna invited me to join their annual excursion to the farm.

After a long drive, she even shared her home with me to stay the night. When we arrived at school the next morning, she introduced me to a dozen awestruck kids who whispered, “Is that the scientist?” in the same tone of voice I’d heard only for celebrity sightings.

I had brought a small aquaponics tank, and we had a fun morning getting our hands wet setting it up with water and plants. We then sat down and talked about how the system recirculated the fish-poo-filled water through the plant roots, while the plants absorbed the nutrients and simultaneously cleaned the water. The lightbulb moment was evident as the kids started drawing flow charts to illustrate this circle of life.

I have since visited other local schools in Bayswater and Dandenong through Scientists in Schools. I tell students about my startup business where we make biodiesel, a sustainable fuel, from used cooking oil. It’s amazing to see the new generation understand the importance of integrated processes, where recycling is not just a buzz word, but an inherent part of how our world works.

At one school, a young girl approached me at recess, explaining how she had always liked chemistry and engineering, and now realised that she wanted to be a chemical engineer just like me.

Being involved with Scientists in Schools has re-ignited my passion for science. Inspiring a new generation of truth-seekers and tinkerers reminds me why I do what I do.

The adult world can often be dry and filled with ego and agendas. It’s like the black and white start to the Wizard of Oz, but when visiting these schools, talking to kids and hearing their optimism to learn, the colour comes back and motivates me to keep working in science.

– Dr Rebecca Yee


Click here to find out more about the Scientists in Schools program.