Community-based youth outreach inspires future Indigenous engineers

Posted on January 21, 2022


 

Cohen Shipp-Wiedersprecher, a Mohawk second-year Mechanical Engineering student at Queen’s, remembers the moment he fell in love with engineering.

“An outreach program came to my school when I was in grade seven,” he says. “The instructors started out with some basic activities, like building a bridge or a little shelter. It was one of the most fun experiences I ever had, and each activity helped me realize that engineering was for me. I went on to participate in an engineering camp for Indigenous students at Queen’s, which brought together my interests and my culture.”

Children most often learn about the world of work from those closest to them: family members or local role models who help shape their aspirations for the future. But what if there is no role model? Indigenous Futures in Engineering (InEng; formerly known as Aboriginal Access to Engineering) is working to change that narrative by providing support and inspiration for the next generation of Indigenous engineers.

“A majority of people learn about engineering through someone they know,” says Melanie Howard, the Director of InEng. “We know that approximately 0.3% of all people with an engineering degree identify as Indigenous. So the chances of Indigenous children having an engineer as a role model in their lives is very slim.”

Along with a lack of role models is a lack of access to education. “A solid grounding in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) is paramount, and they need to learn that at an early age; they need to learn that at the formative years in elementary school,” says Irving “Bing” Leblanc, a First Nations engineer from Wikwemikoong Unceded Territory and Director of Infrastructure with the Assembly of First Nations.

Jeanette Southwood, Vice President, Corporate Affairs and Strategic Partnerships at Engineers Canada, and also an engineer, says that inequity in access to STEM education creates a real barrier to a university education. “Indigenous students growing up in a larger centre like Toronto are more likely to have access to prerequisite courses than students who are growing up in a more rural or remote area,” she says. “We need to ensure equity in education for all students.”

The youth outreach staff of InEng connect with schools in First Nations throughout southern Ontario, collaborating with teachers to incorporate engaging science and math activities using such materials as robots, iPads, and building materials for engineering design.

“We plan and develop science and math workshops and work closely with the teachers to link the workshops to topics they are teaching, in line with the Ontario curriculum,” says Indigenous STEM Outreach Coordinator Nicole General, Ed’16. “The robots are very user-friendly, and the kids just love them. It’s a fun way for them to actively solve math problems using an understanding of area and perimeter.”

Indigenous STEM Outreach Coordinator Umar Umangay, a Native Hawaiian who has worked and trained extensively in Indigenous pedagogies across North America, says that teachers and students have been welcoming and eager to share knowledge. “It’s great for these young people, future scientists and engineers, to see Indigenous role models,” he says. “With me, I hope they are seeing it from a more global perspective, that there are a lot of Indigenous people around the world.”

Six Nations-based elementary school teacher Josie Urqhart says that global perspective has added a new dimension to the workshops. “Even though the workshop was about science, it opened up a whole discussion about culture and heritage, and how there are different First Nations communities around the world,” she says. “It also helps our students see that university is a reachable goal, and that maybe they can do this too.”

June Sowden, who also teaches in the Six Nations of the Grand River community, says the outreach coordinators are great at integrating culture into lessons. “One of our geometry assignments involved graphing wampum belts to understand different transformations. Nicole and Umar had the students take their robots and program them to draw the wampum on the floor. The kids were incredibly engaged, playing with robots without even realizing that they were learning about angles and geometry and calculating things.”

For Shipp-Wiedersprecher, the outreach experience inspired him to choose engineering, and Queen’s. He says that he knew that the engineering program was excellent, but that he would also have an opportunity to explore his Mohawk identity. “There’s such a great community here, with the support that I’ve needed to do well in school, and to connect with my culture.”

 

 

This article is one of five in a series regarding the newly renamed Indigenous Futures in Engineering. To learn more about this initiative, please visit: Aboriginal Access to Engineering is now "Indigenous Futures in Engineering"