“Science Is All Around You”: Actua Instructors Bring STEM Learning to Remote Communities

There was a lot to learn at Actua’s summer camps for Indigenous children in the north, but one lesson stood out: STEM education belongs to everyone.

For two decades, Actua has been delivering technology workshops and other STEM experiences to young people across Canada. Among its many projects to help youth become leaders in science, technology, engineering and math, the national charity engages 35,000 Indigenous youth each year, including those in the hardest-to-reach communities in the north.

GE Canada has been a National Cornerstone Partner of Actua since 2006. “GE’s support has been instrumental in expanding our programs for underserved youth,” says Jennifer Flanagan, Actua’s CEO. GE has given a critical boost to many of Actua’s programs, like the Maker Mobile that’s travelling across the country for Canada’s 150th.

The support isn’t just financial, either. “We’ve had hundreds of GE employees get engaged over the last eleven years,” says Flanagan. GE employees contribute as volunteer mentors, help to develop project ideas, participate in fundraising initiatives, and host Actua programs at GE facilities. Several current GE employees were once Actua instructors and are now building their careers as engineers or scientists.

Among the many initiatives that GE supports is Actua in the North. This past summer, teams of Actua instructors travelled to thirty-one remote communities in the Kitikmeot, Kivalliq, and Qikiqtani regions of Nunavut and in northern Quebec and Ontario. Working in “pods” of three, the instructors found clever and exciting ways to show the kids how science is all around them: in the natural world, in the tools and services they use, and in the traditional knowledge of their elders.

We spoke with three instructors about their experiences.

 

Madelynn Slade: Paying it Forward

Madelynn Slade was on one of the four teams delivering workshops in remote communities in Nunavut, including to three communities that are north of the Arctic circle. The only way to travel between them is on small planes. “They bank pretty hard and give you some incredible views,” Madelynn recalls.

Madelynn is originally from Rocky Mountain House, Alberta. She’s a member of the Michel Cree Nation from Treaty 6 Territory. She moved to Victoria nine years ago to do her first degree in Child and Youth Care with a specialty in counseling. Now she’s completing a degree in Biology and plans to go to medical school.

“My life’s goal is to support Indigenous learning, so it was incredible and empowering for me to be able to teach Indigenous kids things that I didn’t have the opportunity to learn when I was their age,” she says.

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On the first day of each week-long camp, the teams asked the kids to draw a map of their community on a giant piece of paper and to point out places where they could see science: everything from the airport to the telephone poles to local fishing spots. “We got them to place themselves on the map, so they could see their role, and the fact that we weren’t bringing in science, it was with them all the time,” explains Madelynn.

The Actua instructors worked hard to connect their lessons to knowledge that already exists in the communities. For example, hunting is very scientific, explains Madelynn. “Understanding where the whale and the seal will be at what time of the year is science. So we make sure the kids know that their parents are scientists. They’ve done a lot of work to track these things.”

The message definitely made an impact. “Sometimes the kids were stunned,” recalls Madelynn. “They’d say, ‘I did science while I was out on the land?’ ‘Yes! Totally!’ We want them to feel like scientists. Even if that’s not their goal right now, we want them to know that science is accessible and directly for them.” 

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Madelynn has a special passion for empowering girls to envision a future for themselves in STEM careers. “It’s hard to see Indigenous women in STEM. We’re kind of invisible, but we’re there,” she says. “I have fought against a lot of discrimination. I try to make this space more welcoming to women and girls.”

Madelynn believes that she can help girls find the confidence to study STEM by sharing about her own experiences and acting as a role model. “I’m into marine biology and I love by the ocean, so I get to study a lot of really cool sea animals,” she says. “I get excited about that, and I try to engage with them and talk to them about it.”

Whenever she can, Madelynn tries to share her message to younger Indigenous women who might consider studying STEM: “You can be here too. We’re in this together.”

 

Jason Pires: The Teacher Becomes the Student

Jason Pires completed a degree in physics and math at the University of Guelph and now teaches science and math to high school students in Ontario. It was his love of teaching and his desire to learn that drew him to be an instructor in Actua’s summer camps in the north.  “I wanted to see different approaches to education and take things back to my teaching down south,” he says.

One lesson came through very clearly this summer: “Get student ownership,” he says. “Get them to bring their own interests to the table.”

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Helping the youth find their interest in science and gain a sense of ownership over STEM learning was as simple as looking around in their communities. “Science is all around you,” says Jason. “We wanted to show the kids that they could be scientists too and interact with science and technology in the world around them.”

Jason says that his team of instructors found the most success creating excitement for STEM by accessing what was already there in the communities. “We went to a meat-processing plant where they were processing arctic char and muskox,” says Jason. “Then we had elders come in and do a fish dissection in front of the kids. Not only did they share their knowledge, but they connected living off the land to science.”

The Actua teams encouraged the youth to use their imagination to solve real-world problems. They used popsicle sticks and cheesecloth to design a method to remove solid pollution from water. They built wind turbines, did activities about noise-pollution in the water from boats, and spoke about careers in environmental preservation and wildlife interaction.

“The kids are open to learning,” says Jason. “They just need to be given the confidence and chances to do that. To show them that learning can be fun, it’s very empowering.”

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Sasha Ekomiak: Cultural Homecoming

Sasha Ekomiak studies Biology at Nipissing University and plans to become a veterinarian. Sasha’s family is originally from the Cree Nation of Chisasibi in Northern Quebec, but her father was sent to a residential school and she grew up as one of very few Indigenous people in Elliot Lake, Ontario, so she feels that she didn’t have adequate opportunity to learn about her culture. “I was really excited to do this job and learn more about Indigenous cultures,” she says. “It felt so amazing to feel like I fit in. Actua actually gave me the opportunity to drive to my home community. I’ve only been there once before, so I was so excited to meet my family.

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Sasha and the other two instructors in her group traveled to communities in Northern Quebec and Ontario. While their colleagues in Nunavut travelled by plane, Sasha’s team was able to drive between the communities, which made for some pretty long road trips: “One weekend we had 23 hours of driving,” she recalls.  

One of the benefits of road access was that Sasha’s team was able to link up with the Actua Maker Mobile on its cross-country road trip. They helped the youth design blueprints for vehicles like big trucks or jet packs and then build them out of popsicle sticks and other craft materials. They also made wind turbines and spoke about renewable energy. “It was really cool to see how their imagination would take over and they would enjoy every moment,” says Sasha.  

 

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The Actua Maker Mobile Went to Parliament. Here’s what Happened.

 

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Like the other teams, Sasha and her fellow instructors would bring children out on walks to look for science in their own communities. They also brought in elders to share about their traditional knowledge and connect it to science.

The teams used lots of different tools to animate their workshops. “Actua gave us these cute little Ozobots, which are like baby robots,” explains Sasha. “They’re programmed to read light. So we’d explain the technology and engineering in it.”

For Sasha, one of the best parts was seeing the transformation in the youth over the course of the week-long camp. “Seeing their confidence build was amazing,” she says. “At the beginning of the week, they’d be shy and quiet, but by the end of the week, they’d be completely out of their shell and comfortable. It was amazing to see the kids get excited about science.”

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