Queen’s Engineering engages youth, powered by over $1.2 million in funding

Posted on October 05, 2020

When the Ontario government announced its return to school plan for elementary and secondary students this summer, Scott Compeau, Manager at Connections Engineering Outreach at Queen's, was already prepared to take on the new school year—from a distance.

“We knew there was no way our partner schools would grant outreach staff occasional visits during a pandemic,” he said, “so we spent the summer preparing for online classroom workshops.”

Elementary school students in a Connections Engineering Outreach workshop COVID-19 has radically changed the way youth outreach teams like the one he leads here in the Faculty of Engineering & Applied Science engage the classroom. In previous years, one or more of the outreach coordinators were on the road visiting area elementary schools four days per week.

The Connections Engineering Outreach team has quickly built up a robust suite of community engagement programs, all in an effort to enhance the learning journeys of young people in the Kingston area on STEM concepts. In-class visits and after school programs have evolved to online classroom visits, initiatives exclusively for girls, and, in coordination with Queen’s Faculty of Education, specialized training for elementary and secondary school teacher candidates.

“The Connections staff has really invested in teacher professional development,” he said. “That was a new funding stream from Actua and the federal government’s CanCode initiative.

We’re building the capacity of educators so they can bring educational technology and digital literacies such as coding into more classrooms. Each member of the Connections staff has a teaching degree, so we’ve been able to use our educational knowledge to build purposeful resources that add value to the educators, students, and the schools.”

He is quick to credit Actua, the national charity and a leader in STEM outreach to youth, for building the network of forty university and college outreach teams from which they all share resources and brainstorm ideas, and for financially supporting Connections so generously. In the six years since Queen’s Faculty of Engineering began investing in youth STEM outreach, Actua has granted Connections as well as the Aboriginal Access to Engineering (AAE) initiative over $1.2 million. And the successes are clear.

Dean Kevin Deluzio meets with Connections Outreach students in classroom workshop

“We currently have students in first and second-year engineering who first engaged with us when they were in grade seven,” said Melanie Howard, the director of AAE. While also providing targeted student support to Indigenous engineering students at Queen’s, the AAE initiative employs two outreach coordinators who, like the Connections team, have pivoted to engage schools online, in this case for three Indigenous communities in Ontario. Queen’s is unique in that its Indigenous STEM youth outreach program has been fully developed here within the faculty.

“Our approach to Indigenous outreach has ended up taking on a much different format than Actua's in-house InSTEM program,” she said, “but the beauty of the networked concept is that they recognize there is not a one-program-fits-all solution. We are allowed to develop the relationships we have in the manner we feel they should proceed, and Actua supports us in doing so without being prescriptive.”

Jennifer Flanagan is the President/CEO and a co-founder of Actua, which is based in Ottawa. As an undergraduate at the University of New Brunswick in the early 1990s, she conceived of Actua thanks to an initiative of Queen’s Faculty of Engineering.

Jennifer Flanagan, CEO of Actua
“Queen’s has a special place in the Actua history,” she said. “It was the first university in Canada to actually start these types of STEM outreach programs. There were two women who were earning their undergraduate engineering degree who thought, it’s especially important for more girls to be aware, and kids love summer camp… let’s do a camp! So that model kind of spread across the country through student groups and I was involved in that national conversation after I was finished university.”

From those origins came a national charity that over 25 years later facilitates outreach to Indigenous and other underrepresented youth, a national girls program, a Northern Canada program which reaches forty communities in the Yukon, Nunavut, and Northwest Territories, as well as maintaining the network of 40 university and college outreach teams.

“The team at Queen's has consistently demonstrated a really strong ability to engage local communities,” she said. “They recognize the importance of youth engagement in STEM and have been wonderful and innovative in the methods that they have. And we've been very proud not only to build the national network and support those initiatives, but to also provide such significant levels of funding to the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Sciences. It’s phenomenal outreach to community.”

Mark Gerretsen, Member of Parliament for Kingston and the Islands, offered praise to the Connections team for inspiring youth in science, math, engineering, and technology.

“It is rewarding to see our investment in the future of young Canadians, and our commitment to increasing access to hands-on STEM experiences for all youth, at work through the successful outreach programs offered by Queen’s Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science,” he said. “By providing invaluable mentorship and skills-training opportunities in the sciences, initiatives like these inspire more students to work towards becoming Canada’s next great innovators.”

“Our youth outreach teams are empowering young people to think about futures in engineering, especially in underrepresented communities,” added Dean Kevin Deluzio of the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science. “Making STEM both fun and educational to new Canadians, Indigenous young people, and the new Black Youth in STEM program doesn’t just benefit the students – it’s an investment in the profession of engineering, and in our future. We’re grateful to the hard work of our teams, and to Actua for making this possible.”

For Scott Compeau and the entire Connections staff, it’s granting them the freedom to focus exclusively on youth engagement.

“Our outreach engagement numbers have grown quite a bit,” he said, “because there isn’t a cost associated for schools or teachers to book a workshop, and that’s because most of the expenses are covered by Actua. By providing in-school STEM outreach workshops, we’re working with a more diverse group of students, not just the ones who would traditionally self-nominate for an after-school program.

“By supporting teachers to deliver STEM learning opportunities within the school day and for a diverse population, we’re contributing toward students making an informed decision to pursue STEM as a career.”

Outreach Coordinator Carmen Maerz regularly met with elementary school students in the classroom until COVID-19 changed everything