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Learning how to test blood pressure (Vital Signs Activity) at the Rankin Inlet camp.

January/February 2012 by Elizabeth Gray-Smith

On his bike ride home, Ben wears the surgical mask and gloves given to him at camp. Dressed the part, he declares, “I really want to be a dentist when I grow up.”

Ben is one of many young participants attending Actua’s Health Careers Camp, now famous among Pangnirtung youth. Campers analyze real x-rays of the human body, listen to a baby’s heartbeat and remove plaque from realistic teeth moulds with genuine dental instruments. During this weeklong, hands-on experience, Ben is not just roleplaying, he is starting to think about his own career in health sciences. He can’t wait to learn more.

“They kept asking me when the science camp was coming back,” recalls Chris Heide, coordinator for Making Connections for Youth for the Hamlet of Pangnirtung, describing the explosion of enthusiasm that came from campers. “They were excited about learning during the summer, when school is actually out.”

The Health Careers Camp is a relatively new program, in a long list of topics covered by Actua’s Science, Engineering and Technology camps, and is proving to be wildly successful. The programming combines cultural learning, delivered through community partners, with critical and creative thinking and allows youth to connect to their community in new and exciting ways by shining a spotlight on the science that exists at the very core of their everyday lives.

“Through this unique programming, campers are challenged to approach their immediate environment through a scientific lens,” says Jennifer Flanagan, President and CEO of Actua. “We want to ignite a love of learning and unleash the incredible curiosity youth possess.”

With a wealth of career choices in the resource-rich regions of the North, the programming is designed to leave a lasting impression on the participants they engage, with sustained results in the communities they reach. Each community-tailored science activity allows campers to connect with regional economic development opportunities. They begin looking at possible career paths in a whole new light.

Many kilometres away in Repulse Bay, campers piece together a labyrinth of pipes and watch the water flow through their plumbing creation. They talk about water delivery systems and the challenges presented by permafrost and they collaborate on the most appropriate community planning strategies. In one afternoon, they begin thinking like civil engineers.

Meanwhile, in Whale Cove, young participants are taking in the marvels of earth sciences. With their hands, they pick up samples of minerals, rocks that come from the ground in their community. It doesn’t take long to see it all differently. Using some simple chemicals and a UV light, they uncover the surprising properties the rocks possess. They now see the top layer of earth under their own feet as prosperous in science, an opportunity to ask questions and to dig deeper. They are gaining the skills to become geologists.

The activities, whether focused on engineer – ing, technology or health sciences, seem to have something for everyone — the creative thinker, the community leader, the math lover, the caregiver, the builder.

“We use a really wide diversity of activities to make sure that we connect science to what is important in the lives of youth. We want them to see that science is all around them and is present in the things they are interested in whether that is music, sports, art or hunting. With each experiment they do, problem they solve, or idea they generate, they discover skills they may not even know they have and they start to connect the dots between who they are and what they can be when they grow up,” says Flanagan. “We want them to know there is a place for them in science and, most importantly, we want science to empower them.”

As Heide contends, the imprint on the campers is detected immediately in the burst of motivation he sees in those wanting to continue with science learning.

“The camps produce children with a heightened sense of curiosity about the world around them,” he notes. “A week is not a long time in a child’s life, but the effects of this camp are long-lasting.”

While many of these communities do have strong economic development opportunities, they also witness alarming high school drop – out rates.

“Actua’s programs are making an impact in narrowing this gap,” says Kim Warburton, Vice-President Communications and Public Affairs of GE Canada, a national supporter and long-time fan of Actua. “The way they are designed, they have the capacity to pave a very positive path for youth as they look ahead, to the next school year, to graduation, to postsecondary educational options and to the career opportunities that abound around them.”

The camps are highly integrated with the community. Working with community leaders and local Elders to identify the most appropriate subject matter, Actua focuses on delivering activities that are culturally and locally relevant. Local experts — scientists, engineers and sometimes, technologists — are invited to visit the camps to provide extra inspiration. Trained instructors, many students themselves who share a love for learning science, are mobilized to serve as science role models and act as facilitators. While the local Elders and experts provide much of the traditional knowledge on which the activities are based, the instructors help the campers apply scientific practices and thinking skills. This for-youth by-youth delivery model is key to the success of the programming.

Danielle MacMillan is an Outreach Coordinator for Actua, where she supports curriculum development and delivery. Her passion for the program comes from her own experiences in knowledge sharing with youth, when she worked as an instructor for two years in the science camps throughout Nunavut.

MacMillan remembers walking campers through the simulated dental appointment in Iqaluit and seeing the participants soak in all the health information presented to them. “You see these curious minds exploring health questions in smaller communities that don’t necessarily have access to health professionals.

Through hands-on activities, they begin to understand that health can be simple, that they can make changes in their lives through health decisions and that they could perhaps one day be a dentist in their community.”

Heide witnessed the same results in Pangnirtung. “The camps allow them to demystify the health care system and help them understand the health practices in their everyday lives. Demystifying the health system is very valuable here, in a place where many of the doctors come from the south, where we are expecting our population to be our own health advocates. The more we can do to demystify the health system, the better.”

At the end of each camp session, parents, teachers and community members are invited to an Open House, to see for themselves what these campers have been raving about all week. “The youth are so excited and have gained so much information, they can’t wait to talk about and show their parents what they’ve learned,” say Flanagan.

MacMillan recalls her own experience at an Open House in Iqaluit and what she calls one of many “wow factor” moments she witnessed.

“We set up stations that the kids have full ownership over. The kids were ready to become teachers, leaders. They were excited to share their own knowledge. You can see the pride they have in what they’ve learned in their community. To hear a seven-year-old say the word phosphorescent with enthusiasm is pretty incredible.”

Actua has been delivering experiences like this one in Iqaluit to Northern communities for over ten years. Success of the programming is credited to strong relationships with community organizations, Inuit associations and through partnerships with the Nunavut Arctic College, the Nunavut Research Institute, Yukon College and DiscoverE at the University of Alberta. We are also pleased to have First Air as our Official Airline Sponsor of our Northern programming.

Through the generous support of GE Canada, the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency, the Suncor Energy Foundation, the Canadian Institute of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Shell Canada and the Government of Nunavut, Actua will continue to invest in relationships with communities in the North, develop new curriculum, and inspire the next generation of scientists and innovators.