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Trent the Canadian Contact Point for Dutch Expert on Community-Based Education

Prof. Caspar de BokThe Trent Centre for Community Based Education (TCCBE) had a visit from a distinguished European guest last week – a tribute to the Centre's reputation for delivering meaningful research-based projects for students and local organizations.

On September 19, Dutch Professor Caspar de Bok, an expert on community-based research, gave a presentation followed by a discussion session at Gzowski College. The Dutch system of community-based research, better known in Europe as "science shops," was the model that first inspired the TCCBE's program 10 years ago.

"I wanted to know more about Trent's system," said Prof. de Bok, head of Utrecht's Science Shop for Biology and co-chair of the Dutch Science Shop Network. "The work being done here is very similar to the science shops in Europe. Trent is a Canadian contact point for our science shops."  Prof. de Bok is also one of the initiators and coordinators of the international science shop network called the Living Knowledge. His work revolves around environmental and health issues.

Kahn Rahi, with the Canadian Community-Based Research Network, joined Prof. de Bok during his visit to Trent. An advocate for the benefits of community-based research, Mr. Rahi says, "Community-based research is a great place for students to become engaged and discover their full potential. There is knowledge in the making, outside of the premises of the academic domain. Community-based research enables students to link with their own immediate community – or a community of their interest."

Prof. de Bok understands the tension that sometimes exists between community groups' expectations and the reality of research. Giving the example of a case study, Prof de Bok spoke of a Dutch citizens' group concerned about a perceived increase in breathing problems within the community and its possible link to pesticide use in local tulip bulb production.

Prof. de Bok explained to the community group that it is virtually impossible to prove a direct link between the pesticide use and citizens' breathing problems. However, university students were sent into local homes to collect dust samples. The samples were then tested for pesticide residue.

"There was a residue in the houses, but it was well below normal levels so there was no reason for alarm," said Prof. de Bok.

In the end, he said, the students received academic credit for their involvement and the project raised the community's awareness of science and how research studies work. It also caught the attention of local and national governments as well as the regional health council.

Connecting citizens with university researchers and scientists to help resolve local issues is the foundation of community-based research. Local citizens' groups can have their questions translated into research projects.

"The result is not always what they (the community groups) want," he said. But, as in the cited case, results can positively affect changes in public policy.

During his discussion, Prof. de Bok also discussed the differences between European and Canadian systems of community-based research and how they relate directly to the structure and organization of universities in each country.

In the Netherlands, for example, science shops are fully university-based and funded. In Canada, community-based research is linked to the university but also has more of a foundation within the community.

"Canada has a much more of a community feeling. There is more community awareness," he said.

According to Mr. Rahi, community-based research is an effective method in which ordinary citizens can be engaged in the decision-making process of science and technology.

"Community-based research is research by the community, for the community and with the community. The partnership features are a terrific example of how community-based research can be practised," he said.

The presentation, attended by students and faculty, was sponsored by the Trent Centre for Community-Based Education (TCCBE) and the Office of Research and Graduate Studies.

The Trent Community-Based Education Program accepts and helps develop proposals from community organizations in the region, which have identified research, planning and development needs. It then matches Trent University students with the organizations to help meet those needs.

Photo: Dr. Caspar de Bok

Posted September 26, 2005

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