"I couldn't change the world, but I could change the world around me"

"Science Lady" Shar Levine advocates on behalf of children's literacy

Donna McKinnon - 09 September 2015

As we look forward to Alumni Weekend (Sept 24-27, 2015), the Faculty of Arts is proud to share the stories of our inspiring alumni. The Faculty of Arts hits a key milestone this year with 50,000 alumni contributing in all areas of life worldwide. Watch for more in the coming days.

We encourage all Arts grads to proudly identify as #1of50K on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram all year long!

Shar Levine ('74 BA) has taken a circuitous path to her life's passion. The 2015 Alumni Honour Award winner has an undergraduate degree in psychology and English, and has taken courses towards a graduate degree in organizational behaviour and industrial relations, but it was a long time before she found her true calling.

In 1987, working as a negotiator for one of the largest trade unions in BC, Levine decided to change course. "My children were small and there weren't enough hours in the day to do all that things which needed to be done," she says. "I was, to be polite, cranky all the time. I hated my job. I wanted to do something that was emotionally satisfying and intellectually challenging. I couldn't change the world, but I could change the world around me."

On vacation, Levine noticed that her children were taken with educational and scientific toys, and correctly assumed that other children would be as well. The idea for Einstein's the Science Center was born. "There wasn't a store selling science and educational items, so opening Einstein's made good business sense," she says. Within months of opening up, the toy, game and book store became an internationally-recognized mecca for the community, with Levine teaching hands-on science in the classroom at the back of the store. "A US publisher literally knocked on my door and asked if I could write a book for children, based on activities we were doing in our after-school programs," says Levine. "That's the story - from labour representative to successful small business owner/author in less than four months!"

Science literacy became an enduring passion. Teaming with best friend Leslie Johnstone, the two have since written more than 60 award-winning science books for children. Initially, it was a steep learning curve. "Writing a children's book looks so simple, but writing a great book is extremely difficult," she says. "There is always a challenge in writing science for a younger audience. The information you include must be at the right reading and comprehension level for young readers, and of course, be scientifically accurate… to a point. Explaining some scientific principles in detail can confuse a child. It's the Goldilocks theory - not too much, not too little, but enough science information for the reader to understand what happened, why it happened and how this relates to their everyday lives."

When not "tossing out ideas for new projects over coffee or wine" with Johnstone, Levine works on various fundraising initiatives for charities that focus on children's literary and/or literacy issues. She sits on the board of the Canadian Children's Book Centre - a national organization that promotes and supports the reading, writing, illustrating and publishing of Canadian books for young readers, as well as Books for Me!, a charity that provides gently-used books to children in need, as designated by the Vancouver School Board.

A tireless advocate and communicator, Levine makes countless public appearances at teacher conventions and libraries each year. She continues the conversation via her website sciencelady.com, and is the co-creator of Celebrate Science - A Festival of Science Writers for Children and Youth. "The emotional rewards are many - especially when doing hands-on science presentations for elementary school children," she says. "When a cynical pre-teen comes up to you after an appearance and says, 'Science Lady, you rock!', it's hard not to feel great!"

A literate and engaged citizenry starts in childhood, and while Levine focuses on science, she credits her arts background with guiding her in the right direction. "You never know how or when information you learned as part of a degree in Arts will sneak into your life," she explains. "When you learn about history, people, places and cultures it guides and shapes your view of the world. Simply put, it makes you a more reasoned and less xenophobic person. It can inspire you to become involved in local, national and even international community. It offers the opportunity for you to find your passion.