Lack of interest in science is hurting the economy

Reduced enrolment in STEM subjects restricts career choices for Canadian youth, women remain underrepresented

Lack of interest in science is hurting the economy

How much does it cost the country when high school students drop out of math and science courses? Too much, says a recent “Spotlight on Science Learning” report by Let’s Talk Science, a national charitable organization committed to fostering engagement in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in children and youth.



In Ontario, as in most provinces, math and science courses are optional after Grade 10. As a result, fewer than half of Canadian high school grads actually complete senior-level STEM courses, despite the fact that 70 per cent of top jobs and well over 50 per cent of university and college programs require at least some stem background.

The result? Huge costs, both for students — who may have to go back to school to make up prerequisites or miss out on potential job options and future earnings ­— and for Canada’s economy, since a decreased interest in these fields leads to a smaller talent pool and the loss of potentially key workers and innovators. Ontario alone “loses $24 billion in economic activity annually because employers can’t find people with the skills they need to innovate and grow,” according to the Let’s Talk Science report.

Part of the problem, according to the report, is that students are often unaware of how many doors they close when they drop out of math and science. If students are not fully aware of the benefits of pursuing STEM courses throughout high school, taking them can seem like a waste of time and effort. Yet many university and college programs, even those in fields like culinary arts, technical theatre, or fitness ­— at first glance fields unrelated to STEM ­fields — require Grade 12 math and science courses as prerequisites to admission.

Science GraphsIn a 2012 report, the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) also emphasized the importance of early math and science education in the development of Canada’s future researchers: “Young Canadians lack sufficient knowledge about educational requirements for future careers, as well as a clear understanding of what PCEM [physical sciences, computer science, engineering, mathematics] careers entail… Evidence indicates that there is a disconnection between the educational choices some students make at the secondary level and their post-secondary or career goals.”

Dr. Bonnie Schmidt, president of Let’s Talk Science, stresses in the report the importance of science literacy in any of a student’s potential careers, and emphasizes that if educators are to engage children and youth in STEM fields, that engagement needs to start early: “We need to inform our youth of the importance of STEM courses for their future careers, engage them in experiential science learning from an early age, and sustain their interest in science throughout their studies.”

Another contributing difficulty highlighted in the Let’s Talk Science report is the need to engage all segments of Canadian society, including groups that have been traditionally under-represented, such as women and Aboriginals. According to Statistics Canada, women currently account for 53.7 per cent of Canadians between the ages of 25 and 64 with a university degree. However, women represent less than one third (32.6 per cent) of Canadians with a university degree in STEM subjects.

The CCA also noted that women’s representation, not only at the undergraduate and graduate level, but also in research careers and academic positions, varies significantly by discipline. Although women are comparatively well-represented in the humanities, social sciences, and life sciences, they account for only 24 per cent of students enrolled in university programs in computer science, engineering, or mathematics or the physical sciences, and only 14.8 per cent of faculty members in these disciplines.

There is a clear need for more outreach and education, and U of T has recognized this need for some time. A number of programs on campus actively work to combat this lack of interest by getting elementary and high school students involved in exciting, hands-on projects. For instance, U of T works with Let’s Talk Science to mobilize undergraduate, graduate, and faculty volunteers, who run science activities for children and youth at both the St. George and Scarborough campuses.

The Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering has a range of programs in place, like the the Da Vinci Engineering Enrichment Program (DEEP). The DEEP Saturday workshops are classes “designed to introduce students in grades nine to 12 to graduate-level research in science and engineering.” Engineering Outreach also runs Jr. DEEP, aimed at students in grades five to eight, as well as March Break and summer programs. Sample activities include making slime, building model cars, rockets, and roller coasters, or creating musical instruments.

U of T is also leading efforts to address the gender gap. The Jr. DEEP program offers sessions for girls in grades three to eight. On October 19, U of T participated in Go ENG Girl, a province-wide program that invites girls to visit a local university and learn about opportunities for them in engineering from current female engineering students and graduates. Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) at U of T is a co-ed student organization that sends volunteers to high schools across the GTA to encourage and inspire students to pursue science and engineering at the postsecondary level.

A great deal of work is being done to address the lack of interest and lack of knowledge about stem subjects that both the CCA and Let’s Talk Science have identified. Nevertheless, it’s important to keep in mind that Canada’s potential for innovative excellence in these fields depends on students’ talent ­—and if they aren’t interested, everyone loses.

Research reveals the real reasons you’re having sex

U of T study investigates avoidance and approach in sexual motivation

Research reveals the real reasons you’re having sex

A recent University of Toronto study explores the real reasons couples have sex. U of T post-doctoral fellow Amy Muise led the study, in which motivations for sexual activity were broken down into two broad categories. The study, “Getting it on vs. getting it over with: Approach-avoidance sexual motivation, desire and satisfaction in intimate bonds,” was published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.



Unlike most animals, humans use sexuality to shape levels of happiness in a romantic relationship. Sex is an act that goes beyond reproduction, and a healthy sex life is often considered a key part of a healthy relationship.  According to the study, romantic couples engage in sexual activity more often than those who have sex with one-off partners.

There are many reasons why couples engage in sex. A 2007 University of Texas study identified 237 distinct motivation for sex, which ranged from the simple ­— stress reduction, physical satisfaction — to the complicated — revenge-cheating. The University of Toronto study was able to significantly simplify the number of motivations; only two were described, “avoidance” and “approach.”

An avoidance motive is a motive that seeks to avoid a negative outcome for the couple’s status, such as feelings of guilt in one part of the partnership or a certain conflict that may transpire if sex does not happen. Conversely, an approach motive seeks a positive outcome for the relationship. This approach often results in feelings of intimacy or a desire to be closer with the special person.

What this study found was that on days in which the couples were having sex for approach reasons, the sex was better, the relationship was stronger, and the level of satisfaction was much higher. On days in which couples had sex for avoidance reasons, the opposite was true ­— the relationship was less healthy, the sex was not as good, and overall satisfaction was much lower. Avoidance motivations were believed to be more common in older relationships than in newer relationships, in which couples are beginning to explore their sexual tendencies.

Of course, this does not imply that couples do not enjoy the sex in an avoidance situation, but only that it is more of an “in-the-moment” satisfaction with negative psychological outcomes coming later. It is apparent that approach motivation leads to healthier and stronger relationships.

In order for couples to engage in approach-motivated sex, as opposed to avoidance-motivated sex, the study found that there needs to be more meaningful communication between couples. This communication needs to be much more in-depth than small talk — it must explore new and challenging emotional connections. It becomes apparent, as couples begin to build a relationship outside of the bedroom, that the sex becomes better as well — a win-win scenario.

Coping with stress

U of T students are stressed out! Here’s how to manage

Coping with stress

Studying at one of the most challenging universities in the country can be challenging. Whether it’s tackling the endless lists of readings, paying back OSAP, or simply attempting the impossible task of finding a study room at Robarts, for most students, stress is a year-long affair.



Stress is the body’s reaction to forces that disturb its physiological equilibrium, and every person experiences stress differently. As you probably know, stress can also have negative psychological effects. The strategies that students use to cope with stress in university — whether good or bad — will stay with them as they move on from U of T. Fortunately, the university offers a variety of resources to help students develop healthy ways of dealing with stress. It’s important to take advantage of these resources. Stress can seriously affect mental and physical health, but it can be managed in healthy and constructive ways.

It can be very challenging to balance school, work, co-curriculars, and staying healthy. However, students who make an effort to find a balance may find themselves with less stress in their lives. This is a guiding principle behind many of the relevant services offered to U of T students. The Academic Success Centre (ASC) offers tips for coping with stress online — such as study with friends, visualize success, and take a break. The ASC also holds workshops on stress management. The U of T chapter of MoveU, an organization that is “your one-stop resource for active, healthy fun,” offers information and activities that help students maintain a healthy lifestyle. Move
U of T holds events that make it easy for students to be healthy, such as smoothie-making competitions and mobile yoga classes.

If stress becomes overwhelming, students can stop by Counselling and Psychological Services to make an appointment or to take a coping skills workshop. Stress management also could be as simple as taking a break every so often, and possibly filling that time with a free massage at Hart House (offered every Monday, 12–3 pm).

University of Toronto announces new mental health committee

University of Toronto announces new mental health committee

Following a $27 million commitment to the mental health of post-secondary students by the provincial government in March 2013, the University of Toronto has revealed to The Varsity its intention to develop a campus-wide mental health strategy.

The Provostial Committee on Mental Health — to be chaired by vice-provost, students Jill Matus — was set to be formally announced in November. The Varsity spoke with key university administrators over several weeks to discuss the proposed composition and purpose of the panel.

The committee, created by assistant vice-president, student life, Lucy Fromowitz and Health and Wellness executive director Janine Robb, seeks to establish a framework to “connect the suite of counselling, psychiatric, and health services offered by the university at a tri-campus level.” It is expected to include “faculty deans, senior staff, UTSC and UTM administrators, academic success workers, the university’s psychiatrist-in-chief Andrea Levinson, and members of accessibility services,” in addition to an undergraduate and graduate representative.

Lucy Fromowitz, U of T's assistant vice-president, sudent life. TREVOR KOROLL/THE VARSITY

Lucy Fromowitz, U of T’s assistant vice-president, student life. TREVOR KOROLL/THE VARSITY

Similar frameworks were organized at Queen’s University and Brock University in recent years.

Fromowitz, who is responsible for Hart House and 12 distinct departments under the Student Life umbrella, said that the committee seeks to better evaluate gaps in the current system. “We can establish quantitative metrics to ensure that all students are getting equal access to mental health services and so that we can [address] any needs that aren’t being met,” she said.

Robb, a four-year veteran of Health and Wellness who comes from an extensive public health background at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), outlined the committee’s proposed structure: “We hope to have five working groups that can develop policy proposals to send up to the larger committee for approval. These will focus on selected issue areas like awareness & anti-stigma, education & training, curricula & pedagogy, services & programs, and policies & procedures,” she said. She added that while faculty deans responded optimistically to the proposed committee, not all staff members share this outlook. “This policy development process is also an attempt to break into a group that has been tougher to breach. What we’re talking about here are the staff that are maybe less empathetic towards those with mental illness. Those that think mental illness is best treated by pulling their socks up, or sucking it up. Clearly, [mental illness] is a bigger issue than it was 20 years ago. Our staff and faculty need to know how to work with those who face these challenges,” she said.

Fromowitz pointed out improvements to mental health service delivery over the last five years. “We recognize that it is fundamentally an issue of demand. Students, who certainly deserve to be here but who normally wouldn’t have had the ability to attend university in the past, now have access to the right pharmacology and health services. We as a university have embraced this reality and have attempted to develop a comprehensive plan that puts their needs first,” she said.

Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS) is a key mental health service at U of T. Part of the goal of the provostial committee will be to assess challenges faced by CAPS and make proposals for its improvement. Student leaders have repeatedly critized CAPS in past years, particulary for long wait times for students who face acute mental health challenges. “Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS) used to [work] on a first-come-first-serve basis. This was not a good way to operate because students with acute mental health needs wouldn’t get access to the help they needed. Our drive has been to ensure that every new student who goes through the service gets a triage process so that we can identify the most suitable level of care required,” said Fromowitz.

In response to these concerns, Woodsworth student Tom Gleason worked with Robb and the Health and Wellness Staff to develop Peers are Here, a student group committed to peer mentorship and campus support systems. Fromowitz is encouraged by these student innovations. “This is why we love Peers are Here. We don’t want to medicalize or stigmatize stress and anxiety. It is normal for students to face this at school. Building a community that can normalize it and help teach students to cope with it is essential,” she said.

The university has applied to the aforementioned government innovation fund’s second round of proposals. Robb describes the plan as a collaborative partnership between U of T, Ryerson, OCAD, and Sheridan College to develop an “early alert system.” The goal of this will be to feature “a series of self-report measures which you would score. Providing this individualized feedback package allows the university to catch people who might be sliding and help them build on their strengths for the future,” she said. The government is expected to announce the grants sometime in the coming month.

Fromowitz concludes her interview with a reflection on the nature of mental health on campus. “Too often, I think, the situation is presented as a crisis. Let’s really take a look at this. We need to measure what student needs are and assess where gaps might exist before we feed any more into this rhetoric,” she said.

Mental Health Awareness Month begins at U of T

Education event to include Hart House brunch, movie screening

Mental Health Awareness Month begins at U of T

Another midterm season is underway at U of T, as is evident from campus libraries on every corner filling with students. It might not immediately be natural to think or talk about this stressful time from a mental health perspective, but that perspective does bring questions: how all of us will stay well during the cycle of evaluation after evaluation? How do we deal with the academic, social, spiritual, and emotional problems that follow us throughout the year and during the remainder of our lives?



U of T’s Health and Wellness Services recognises this difficult time of the year by setting October as Mental Health Education Month to promote the steps we can take to improve our emotional and mental well-being. Geared towards the goal of creating a more mental-health aware and oriented student body, this campaign focuses on various interactive events that aim to help students ease stress and learn to cope with challenges that the average student faces.

This year, Mental Health Awareness Month at U of T is themed on the message “Build On Your Strengths.”

“This is a ‘positive psychology’ way to talk about mental health, and is well-researched.  It focuses on strengths, skills, and assets that students (and all people) already have, such as resiliency, support from friends and family, and strategies to manage stress,” says Dan Johnson, a community health coordinator with Health & Wellness. A major event this year will be an Unplugged Hour, which will occur on October 10 from 12 pm to 1 pm. During this event, which is similar to Earth Hour, participants will change up their routine by “unplugging” from cellphones, laptops, and social media. This event will encourage students to seek alternative modes of stress relief such as yoga, person-to-person interaction, reading, and socialization.

Some additional events and campaigns that may be worth checking out this month include the New College Mental Health Awareness Fair, as well as a $5 healthy brunch at Hart House on October 27, which will focus on the role food plays in mental health and services that are accessible to students.  As well, an October 22 showing of The Happy Movie will provide students with a look at this widely sought-after emotion; the showing will occur at Victoria College’s Goldring Centre from 4:30 pm to 7:30 pm.

But how exactly do we define mental health? When gauging our personal mental health, the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) has recommended that we look at ourselves in the light of positive psychology and ask: can I bounce back from a difficult life situation and move forward without losing optimism in the process? Can I still enjoy life in the moment and still juggle my priorities without worrying about the things I can’t change? Can I feel and express a range of emotions and adapt to solve any problems associated with them? The definition of mental health is beginning to take a more holistic approach, according to CMHA, that views excellent mental health less as the absence of a disorder and more as a psychological and behavioural evaluation of the whole person.

To place issues of mental health into perspective: a 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey on mental health conducted by Statistics Canada reported that youth between the ages of 15 to 24 had the highest prevalence of anxiety and mood disorders, and substance-abuse-related problems.  The same survey revealed that approximately 2.8 million people, or 10.1 per cent of the population aged 15 or older, have experienced at least one symptom of a mental or substance-abuse disorder.

Research brings hope for brain injury survivors

University of Toronto professor and Canada Research Chair in Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) Dr. Robin Green and her research team suggest that brain injury is a chronic disease that causes continued deterioration to brain structure and function. Moderate to severe brain injuries were previously thought to cause damage in a finite period of time following the injury. Brain injuries can range in severity from a mild concussion to serious trauma.

As Dr. Green indicates, those who have experienced a TBI face consequences that last beyond the initial time of injury. But it’s not all bad news ­— Dr. Green and her colleagues believe that there may be a way to lessen the risk of continued progressive tissue deterioration in the brain. In its recent investigation, the team of researchers demonstrated that providing moderately-to-severely affected individuals with different types of stimulation— physical, social, or cognitive— resulted in reduced shrinking of the brain. This stimulation, termed “environmental enrichment,” included physical activity and engaging with others. Environmental enrichment appeared to be especially effective for memory. More research is needed to better understand the impact environmental enrichment can have, and to integrate it into recovery programs, Still, Dr. Green’s work brings hope for people suffering from debilitating and far-too-common brain injuries.

Private tutors: required or redundant?

ECOMAN, Toronto Life Sciences, and SOS Tutoring receive mixed reviews

Private tutors: required or redundant?

As a first-year student, Chelsey Konya struggled in Economics 105. Finding that she was not able to learn effectively in lecture, she stopped going to economics classes after the first few weeks. Around exam time, Konya remembered a pamphlet she received in the first week of class for a tutoring service called ECOMAN. Konya paid for the service, aced her exam, and passed the course.



Konya is one of many students who opt to use services offered by private tutoring companies such as ECOMAN, Toronto Life Sciences (TLS), and SOS Tutoring Inc. Among other services, these companies offer group tutoring sessions designed around many introductory math, science, and economics courses at U of T. While Konya had very positive things to say about her experience, perspectives on the effectiveness and value of these services vary widely among faculty and students.

Though outside tutoring companies are not affiliated with the university, they often rent space from U of T and run their sessions on university property. Laurie Stephens, Director of Media Relations for the university did not answer questions about the tutors saying: “We cannot comment on the effectiveness of services provided by external service providers.”


Concerns about “crash course” learning model

Some professors interviewed by The Varsity expressed concern about “crash course” sessions offered by private tutoring companies. “Some of these services try to teach students to memorize a lot of things without understanding,” said mat137 course coordinator and lecturer Alfonso Gracia-Saz. He added that a crash course focusing on memorization and pattern matching will not prepare a student for a well-designed exam, which would focus on conceptual understanding.

“Learning occurs best when it is drawn out over time, e.g., through a series of multiple learning sessions, not when it is crammed into a single session,” said PSY100 professor Ashley Waggoner-Denton. Shawn Tian, president of the Arts & Science Students’ Union (ASSU), stressed that it is every student’s responsibility to stay on top of their work. He argued that viewing tutoring sessions as a “failsafe” for not paying attention in class is ineffective. A crammed review session is unlikely to help a student who hasn’t stayed on track throughout the semester, he said.

Aaron Benshabat, president of SOS Tutoring disagrees. He feels there is a place for crash courses in the university system: “There are some courses where you’re not going to be able to have the ideal amount of interaction,” said Benshabat. “Let’s say if you have questions and are in a larger classroom… the university setting as a whole is more conducive to a crash course or an exam review session.” Meanwhile, Collin Nguyen, regional director of TLS, argued that labelling exam review sessions “crash courses” is unfair. He stated that most review sessions span over the course of a few weeks, giving students ample time to consolidate their knowledge. He added that the services offered by TLS are meant as a complement for lectures and official university aid resources, rather than as a replacement for them. ECOMAN declined to comment for this article.

Third-year student Albert Qin attended an ecoman course in his first year. He argued that despite the fact that each concept is taught from scratch, time constraints render the course ineffective if a student goes in without sufficient background knowledge. Second-year student Fatema Khan agreed, adding that ecoman and tls provide short cut answers to difficult questions. Maria Khalil, also in second-year, said that she found group tutoring sessions very effective for cementing difficult concepts in math and chemistry. Not all students praised the tutoring companies though. Third-year student Danny Zaidman was more critical: “I think those tutoring companies are tailored for students who are too lazy to do the work on their own. If you want to have somebody tell you some basic information in monotone, then I guess SOS, ECOMAN, and TLS are for you,” he said.


Quality of teaching material questioned

Another common concern of faculty members is the course material used by private tutoring companies. “When I was a TA, I was handed a booklet of questions and solutions from one of these sessions and asked to explain them,” said mat137 instructor Lindsey Shorser. “The booklet was rife with errors, missed steps, and unreasonable questions. Unless the material is official university material, we cannot guarantee its accuracy, relevance, or quality,” she added. Dwayne Benjamin, a professor of economics and chair of undergraduate affairs, said that his department is concerned about outside companies using copyrighted material, such as notes and solutions from professors, without their approval.

Nguyen confirmed that his service does not use any course notes or packages from the university. He added that TLS courses are taught with up-to-date and relevant information. “We have the most up-to-date textbook in order for [the instructors] to understand and relate to what the students are going through,” he said. Benshabat said that SOS Tutoring uses its own material. He added that instructors are vigorously filtered to make sure that they have taken the same course as the one they are teaching.


Free aid sources under-utilized

Students reported varying degrees of satisfaction with free university aid. Khan said that while the free mathematics and economics aids offered at U of T are effective, limited hours make it difficult for students to get all their questions answered. Qin said that while he made use of the university’s free aid sources, he also found outside tutoring sessions useful. Khalid claimed that peer mentors in the economics department are unable to answer simple ECO100 questions, and that she did not find the economics study centre useful. Eric Chung, a second-year student, argued that while the university offers effective aid services, private companies market their services more effectively.

“I think there is an idea that if the price of some product is higher, then the quality of the product must be higher. This might lead students to believe that tutoring services are more effective than the resources provided by U of T,” said Peter Samuelson, a post-doctoral fellow in the department of mathematics. Economics professor James E. Pesando stressed that the aid centre unique to ECO100 as well as the peer mentoring program available through the department, are under-utilized.

Long waitlists and overworked staff: the state of mental health at U of T

GSU working with administration to improve system

Long waitlists and overworked staff: the state of mental health at U of T

Being a U of T student can be extremely stressful: endless readings, difficult tests, and the pressure of that seemingly omnipresent question: what’s next? Many stressed students seek support from the Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS) office. CAPS, which is housed in the Koffler Student Services Centre, attempts to provide students with adequate resources to overcome mental health problems and successfully pursue their academic goals. Services include one-on-one counselling sessions, as well as group workshops that deal with topics like stress and time management. Their effectiveness, however, has been consistently criticized by student leaders, particularly due to long wait times for students.

“A major concern with CAPS is the sheer number of folks that need to utilize the services. They are in waiting lists forever, and when they need that service, they need it promptly. That is simply not happening now,” claims Brad Evoy, internal commissioner of the Graduate Students’ Union (GSU). Janine Robb, executive director of Health and Wellness Services at U of T, cited underfunding and “wasted appointments” as contributors to the delays. “We get students who make appointments and then don’t show up. Then we don’t have an opportunity to fill it in.”

Demand for mental help has increased as campaigns advocating destigamization of mental health have become more widespread across Canada and internationally. Next month, for example, U of T will be hosting a variety of workshops as part of mental health awareness month. In addition, Blue Space and Green Dot are permanent campaigns which aim to destigmatize mental distress and sexual assault respectively, while promoting an openly communicative atmosphere.

Still, U of T psychology professor John Vervaeke says that “There is such a stigmatization [around mental health]. We tend to give people the benefit of the doubt if there is a physical illness but there is a lot more suspicion surrounding mental issues, and a lot more resistance to accepting it.”

The intangible nature of mental distress, uncharacteristic of physical illness, is a major contributor to CAPS’ lack of accessibility. For example, to discern the student’s needs, a screening session via phone is necessary before counselling can take place. “There are two groups of people: the student who doesn’t have a mental health issue and is overwhelmed, and then there’s the student who does,” says Robb. “Everybody has this idea that their emotional experience needs to have an individual counselling session, and that’s not always the case.”

In some cases, those who end up receiving counselling need to wait a long time in between sessions and are unsatisfied with their services. Melissa Beauregard, former head of arts at Trinity College, cited these as the main reasons for not referring her students to CAPS. Instead, she led them to their dean of students, an alternative for undergraduates seeking help. Beauregard described the administration as “incredibly supportive.”

A student suffering from schizophrenia, who asked to remain anonymous, expressed similar sentiments: “In my case, there was a willingness to modify the curriculum and allow me to complete the course… U of T will find ways to still assist you in completing your year.” After disclosing his illness to professors, he found support and an openness to discuss his illness through academic work. “School fostered an environment where I could self-analyze and develop myself…it has been a maturing and healing process,” he says.

While mental health training for faculty is not currently mandatory at the university, it is something Robb hopes “will get traction” as more attention is brought to these issues.

But while some students’ perspective on CAPS remains bleak, the prospect for change does not. The GSU is taking proactive steps by forming a mental health committee that will work with the administration to mitigate these accessibility issues. “I’m very optimistic … so far we’ve had a positive response from Health and Wellness, who are willing to work closely with us to improve the system,” said Evoy

Robb listed the creation and expansion of various venues for students to get help, such as a drop-in counselling program at Hart House and New College, a student-run peer substance abuse program in New College, and a positive psychology workshop starting in January. In addition, there is an active effort to build strong partnerships at CAMH, so that students in need of extensive care “receive it at the right time and for the right amount.”

As for the criticisms, Robb says: “I could hire more counsellors, but I would still have a wait list because there will always be more [students needing help]. We need to promote health. Rather than being reactive, let’s be proactive.”