Crash Course Encourages Aboriginal Students to Consider Sciences

Students explore science, tech and engineering options, learn about university life.

By Katie Hyslop 15 Feb 2016 |

Katie Hyslop is youth and education reporter for The Tyee.

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Chadwin Scatch tested water and examined fish as part of a one-week earth sciences exploration program.

When Chadwin "Chaddy" Scatch thought about life after high school, he figured he'd become a doctor or a lawyer. "Something high paying," he says with a laugh.

He certainly had the grades for it. Scatch was an honours student at Helen Betty Osborne Ininiw Education Resource Centre, the nursery-to-Grade 12 school he attended in his hometown of Norway House, Manitoba.

But Scatch, a member of the Swampy Cree First Nation, changed his plans in Grade 11 after a one-week crash course at the University of Manitoba on university life and opportunities in the sciences.

The Verna J. Kirkness Science and Engineering Program taught Scatch "to be open-minded about what I could do with my knowledge," he said. He spent the week exploring the earth sciences department "and they helped me see what I could be capable of in the future if I went into that faculty."

The program was set up to encourage Indigenous students to consider the sciences. It's now in its sixth year and has expanded to the University of British Columbia and the University of Saskatchewan.

Hands-on experiment

In late May 2014, Scatch and two* other teenagers from his school travelled 800 kilometres south from Norway House to the university's campus in Winnipeg. They were part of a group of 43 Aboriginal youth from across Canada getting a chance to learn about opportunities in science, technology, engineering and maths -- the STEM subjects -- plus some lessons on what to expect from university life and living so far away from their families. They had been accepted after submitting a 300-word essay on their plans after high school and a letter of reference from a teacher or school counsellor.

Each student picked one area to explore, and Scatch chose earth science after hearing the department's pleas for more Indigenous students.

"The native people are really close to the land," he explained, "and they need more activists for the community, Canada and the world."

In one week Scatch learned how to test water and the fish that live in it for toxins, how to age a fish based on the rings in their ear bones and how worm preference for Norway House soil over Winnipeg soil could indicate toxins in the urban dirt.

"It was a really good eye opener for what I could be doing in the future," he said. By chance he met an Indigenous professor who encouraged him to pursue studies in the field when he expressed doubts.

The program also offered a primer on student life, from enrolling in courses to supports for Indigenous students to finding a place to live. "They taught me so much it would take me an hour to talk about it," Scatch laughed.

Scatch learned how a career in the field could allow him to return to Norway House and help his community, which is important to him. "I could go work for the band, and I'll be an environmental consultant," he said. He could also work for the province's natural resources office there, like his brother.

"Or there's a chance you can be an activist, go into the world and talk about Earth. That's what I want to do -- I want to make a difference one day."

Big hurdles, lacking data

The program is named for Verna J. Kirkness, considered Canada's most famous Aboriginal educator, whose efforts helped persuade the first Trudeau government to adopt a policy of "Indian control over Indian education" that changed on-reserve education in Canada.

Carolyn Kenny, director of programs, says the Kirkness program aims to encourage more students to study in the science, technology, engineering and maths.

"We have a lot of native people going into arts, going into language, going into social work -- a lot in education," she said, adding those graduates can have a direct impact on social issues that colonialism has forced Indigenous communities to deal with today.

There are no firm numbers on Aboriginal STEM participation in Canada. But Kenny says anecdotal evidence suggests Indigenous youth don't pursue those fields in post-secondary even if they have the grades.

Racism is one factor, with public and private schools sometimes streaming Indigenous youth away from sciences and maths and into arts or trades courses.

Scatch's own band encouraged him to pursue a bachelor of arts degree in Norway House instead of studying science in Winnipeg, "because it's easier than sciences," he said. "Most people get bad grades when they come out here to university."

Another factor, says Kenny, is the disconnect that many post-secondary STEM programs have from Indigenous ways of knowing, which predate but can co-exist with colonial scientific practice.

"There's been a big movement to 'indigenize the academy,' because it's not an easy thing -- there's a real problem between pedagogy, curriculum in a Native way and pedagogy and curriculum in a higher education way," she said.

"Universities were designed by white people," she said. "There's a systems rule that says any system is embedded with the values and beliefs of the people who designed the system." But slowly universities are starting to change their stance on Indigenous ways of knowing in the sciences.

This year will be the Kirkness program's biggest, with plans to pick 100 students from across the country to attend one of the three universities after the Feb. 29 application deadline.

Forging new paths

After graduating from high school with honours and winning seven small scholarships, Scatch took the plunge and enrolled in the environmental studies direct-entry program at the University of Manitoba, allowing him to skip first-year general studies and enter the faculty right away.

Now 19 and halfway through his first year at university, Scatch admits the work can be difficult and adjusting to life in the big city can be hard. He sometimes feels out of place in Winnipeg, he adds, but having friends and even extended family at the school is a big help.

And thanks to the Verna J. Kirkness program, Scatch is better prepared than most for the challenges and opportunities of university.

To learn more about the program and apply, go here.

* Story corrected on Feb. 16 from "nine other teenagers" to "two". Ten students from Norway House went the following year.  [Tyee]

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