Aboriginal Access to Engineering: Instilling an appreciation for STEM subjects

Posted on October 30, 2018

By: Matt Mills, FEAS Communications Staff

Before European settlers began to arrive in Southern Ontario in the early 1600s, the area that is now Kingston was home to communities of Huron-Wendat, Anishinaabe, and Haudenosaunee peoples. These communities interacted with one another and with other First Nations across what is now Ontario and Quebec.

The contemporary Kingston Indigenous community continues to be comprised of members of those First Nations; there is also a significant Métis community, and people from other Nations across Turtle Island who live in Kingston today. Our society today was formed in part through, and bears qualities of, the interaction and integration of Indigenous with settler cultures over the past four centuries. This is why so many official events here at Queen’s begin with an acknowledgement: Queen’s University is situated on traditional Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee Territory.

It’s also why the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science (FEAS) at Queen’s supports Aboriginal Access to Engineering (AAE). AAE offers a suite of initiatives to provide support and community for Aboriginal engineering students, ongoing partnership with Indigenous communities across Eastern Ontario, and the promotion of STEM education to Indigenous youth.  It is one of only three similar units at engineering faculties across Canada.

“I didn’t really know a lot about my Indigenous culture before coming to Queen’s,” says AAE student Émélie Gagnon (Sc ’20). “My family didn’t grow up on a reserve, I didn’t grow up on a reserve. Participating in AAE, and with Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre, has really allowed me to know a bit more about what having that Indigenous history means to me. I was really nervous about going to university, and I just feel this environment is so inclusive and supportive that anyone can find success at this school.”

For Indigenous engineering students, involvement with AAE can begin before they even arrive for orientation, as AAE Director Melanie Howard (BA ’95, BEd ’98) reaches out to them soon after offers for admission arrive. First-year students have a welcome day one day ahead of general move-in, that affords them and their families the chance to meet fellow Indigenous engineering students and AAE staff before orientation week begins.

Throughout their studies at Queen’s, AAE students have access to their own student group room in the Integrated Learning Centre, academic support, help with scholarship and employment applications, and a bi-weekly social dinner. There are also special events to mark milestones, like graduation, and the chance to be involved with Aboriginal and student organizations like the American Indian Science and Engineering Society.

“A lot of our students were very high-performing in high school,” says Howard. “We look to support them, not only academically, but also socially and emotionally. We’re looking at the whole person in an Indigenous context.”

It’s work that earns high praise from the 40 or so Indigenous engineering students enrolled last year.

“Melanie does a great job of connecting with the students,” says Anishinaabe student Zackary McDonald (Sc ’18). “We all know who she is. She definitely cares about our wellbeing and our success.”

Off-campus, AAE partners with primary and secondary schools in Indigenous communities across Eastern Ontario to provide STEM education programs with a stated aim of helping students to see science, technology, engineering, and math as enjoyable subjects. It’s also a way to provide professional development in STEM education to teachers without taking them away from their classes. AAE also works with the Queen’s Summer Engineering Academy and Science Quest programs to bring Aboriginal primary and secondary school students to campus during the summer months.

Earlier this year, the AAE team earned the Actua Experience Award – Indigenous Youth in STEM. The award is national recognition for their work, especially with Indigenous youth.

“Over the past five years, we have engaged more than 20,000 Indigenous young people, and we continue to broaden our outreach to Indigenous communities right across Canada,” says Howard. “Through our unique model, we partner with teachers and schools to deliver tailored content which matches with math and science curriculum, while paying attention to Indigenous contributions and cultural linkages whenever possible.”

Learn more about Aboriginal Access to Engineering: www.aboriginalaccess.ca

Group Room

GROUP ROOM: AAE students have access to their own group room in the ILC for study, project work, and social events.


Copy Stand

OUTREACH IN SCHOOLS: Codemakers is just one of the AAE programs offered to students in nearby community schools including Quinte Mohawk School in Tyendenaga Mowhawk Territory.



CAP3: AWARD-WINNING EFFORTS: AAE Director, Melanie Howard, and the AAE team earned the Actua Experience Award – Indigenous Youth in STEM earlier this year for their outreach work in schools in Indigenous communities.