Embracing STEM in the North

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Outreach Instructor Fatima Awan returns to her hometown of Igloolik, Nunavut, to deliver hands-on STEM experiences for local youth. © ACTUA

STEM (science technology engineering and math) is a very popular topic in the education and training fields these days, especially in the North where current and future economic development is predicated on a healthy workforce in these areas. Actua, a national charitable organization that focuses on building confidence and skills in STEM, has been delivering youth programs across the three territories for the past 20 years to accomplish this goal.

Each year, young instructors from across Canada are hired to deliver these programs.

This spring, Actua trained 25 Outreach Instructors to deliver school workshops and summer day camps in communities across Nunavut, Northwest Territories, Northern Ontario and Northern Quebec. The experiences of these instructors, many of whom are Inuit from the North or from other First Nations and Metis communities, reflect the tremendous impact the programs have on their lives and the lives of the participants.

This year, for the first time, one of Actua’s northern campers returned as an instructor.

Fatima Awan, now a fourth year Biomedical Sciences and Biotechnology student at the University of Saskatchewan, participated in the Actua camp in her home community of Igloolik, Nunavut. This summer, returning to Igloolik reaffirmed her commitment to become a physician in the North. “Being reminded of the resilience of the communities and creativity of our youth was hugely motivating for me. I want to return as a doctor to give back to those who raised and believed in me,” she says.

Outreach Instructor James Hudson demonstrates how a sphero is programmed to navigate a maze. This is similar to the way the Mars Rover is coded to navigate the rocky terrain on the surface of Mars.
© ACTUA

James, a third-year computer engineering student from Labrador, Newfoundland, says that “this adventure was a unique opportunity to learn more about my Inuit ancestry and I was blown away seeing how readily young campers embraced the science in their communities. The programming and equipment developed and used over recent years to inspire kids to choose STEM is incredible.”

Actua’s camps are run in partnership with the host community, engaging local Indigenous volunteers and Elders who share their knowledge and integrate cultural experiences into each week. This approach ensures youth make connections to what they already intrinsically know about STEM from within their own community and that programming remains relevant and meaningful.

Camp begins with the recognition that Outreach Instructors are there as guests to equally give and receive knowledge. All activities are shared with the community and a fun and popular Open House provides youth with the opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned to friends and relatives.

Feedback from the communities has been overwhelmingly positive.

Vicki Niptaniak, Youth Coordinator for the Hamlet of Kugluktuk, Nunavut, says the kids and parents start asking about camp well before school lets out for the summer. The Nunavut Hamlet of Grise Fiord’s Administrator for the Municipality, Marjorie Dobson, couldn’t wait for the Outreach Instructors to arrive.

“I think I was as excited as the kids. My favourite moment occurred at an Open House where a little boy showed a relative something he had created using a computer and her eyes literally bulged with delight and surprise. All I want is for these children to have access to the same things that my nieces and nephews have in Toronto,” she says.

Britney Selina, Regional Youth Outreach Coordinator for the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation in the Northwest Territories, found the experience moving. “It was powerful watching the kids light up and seeing their minds open while innovating or interacting during hands-on projects as a group. They didn’t want to leave! A highlight was seeing a little camper bolt to the door to show his parents an art and STEM project about the Northern Lights,” she says.

All three community members agree that the camps were a huge success in their communities this summer and hope they can return next year. As to reasons why it is important for Actua to return repeatedly, Britney Selina has a list. “Having Actua’s camps return frequently and consistently will build relationships and encourage the local partnerships needed to allow it to grow further. These programs also help to create jobs and leadership positions for local teens, like the 10 hired this summer. Continued engagement with STEM through Actua’s visits to schools and camps will help to prepare our youth to become innovators and leaders,” she says.

Actua CEO, Jennifer Flanagan, who recently returned from Iqaluit, Nunavut, where she spoke about Actua’s model at the Energy and Mines Ministers’ Conference, is thrilled by the positive community response to Actua’s camps and programs. “It is crucial that youth living in Northern communities share equality of opportunity to STEM education, especially with the current extensive science-based economic development in the North, and the infinite career possibilities this holds both now and in the future.”

Chloe Girvan is a Freelance Writer who frequently contributes to iPolitics. She resides in Ottawa and you can follow her work on Twitter and Instagram: @mom_interrupted.