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Growing up in Rankin Inlet and Iqaluit, Kristen Ungungai-Kownak remembers attending an Actua science camp where she first learned about electricity and engineering. Fast-forward 12 years and Kristen is now a student at Ottawa’s Nunavut Sivuniksavut program, and an outreach instructor for Actua, Canada’s largest science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) organization.

As a national charity, Actua supports a network of 33 organizations and its own outreach team, which delivers STEM programs in the form of school workshops, camps and clubs to over 225,000 youth annually. Over the past 15 years, Actua has worked with northern communities across all three territories, inspiring youth to discover and achieve their potential. The organization has grown significantly since Kristen’s first experience, but remains committed to returning, year after year, with program content that is both locally and culturally relevant, and inspires northern youth to develop as future leaders and innovators.

Creative application of circuits and inventing cool hardware. Photo courtesy of Actua
Creative application of circuits and inventing cool hardware. Photo courtesy of Actua

Beyond equipping youth with the nuts and bolts of STEM education, Actua is committed to helping youth develop the essential skills they will need to adapt to an ever-changing landscape of career opportunities. One measure of this has been the recent introduction of a new national Codemakers initiative, supported by Google, which answers a growing need to provide youth with computer science and digital literacy skills. The program is adapted specifically to meet the needs of Aboriginal youth, many of who are living in Canada’s most remote communities, to access, understand, and drive the digital world.

Codemakers was launched this spring in Iqaluit with school workshops and a oneday event with a local throat-singing club. Nelson Tagoona, a renowned Inuit beat boxing artist and motivational speaker, invited youth to discover their own musical self-expression by leading them through a throat singing and beat boxing activity. Actua instructors showed the students how to digitally record and remix their sounds, discovering how technology can help them create new modern expressions of their own culture.

Summer camps across all three territories incorporated a variety of computer science experiences, and northern youth were able to design, build, experiment and explore. Using innovative computer science education tools, they learned the fundamentals of data, coding, and how computer science connects with their daily lives.

Youth throughout Nunavut role-played as environmental engineers as they worked with the audio clips collected from the Ocean Networks Canada hydrophone located in Cambridge Bay. The hydrophone is used to collect sound data as a way to monitor sea life, and ice conditions and youth learned how to examine sound data and identify related marine mammal behaviour.

Kristen Ungungai-Kownak, a student at Ottawa’s Nunavut Sivuniksavut program, is an outreach instructor for Actua, Canada’s largest science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) organization. Photo courtesy of Actua
Kristen Ungungai-Kownak, a student at Ottawa’s Nunavut Sivuniksavut program, is an outreach instructor for Actua, Canada’s largest science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) organization. Photo courtesy of Actua

Nunavummiut youth also role played as UAV (Unmanned aircraft vehicle) pilots as they learned about the applications of drone technology using a real map of Kuujjuaq, Quebec, that had been generated by ING Robotics. Campers learned how 3D model maps are created using thousands of photos taken by a drone in flight. They also learned about valuable real-life applications of this mapping technology such as monitoring wildlife, or evaluating impacts of a natural disaster before sending response crews.

The key to success in engaging Northern youth in Codemakers programming is the energy and drive that Actua and their network member instructors bring as young dynamic role models. Kristen explained that her Inuit background gave her an advantage in connecting with the Aboriginal youth. “It was clear that me being from their territory made them think, ‘Ok, if she can do it, I can too.’”

First Nations instructor, Brent Lamborn, of North Gower, Ontario, attributed the engagement of Aboriginal youth in STEM as a personal goal of his when joining Actua. “I wanted to expand my knowledge of my own culture and bring hope to the students in these places. I was told I could do anything I set my mind to and it was a privilege to tell these kids that they could as well,” he said.

“Children need to be able to see themselves in STEM if they are ever going to imagine their role as future innovators,” explains Jennifer Flanagan, Actua’s CEO. “Actua is committed to hiring Aboriginal youth as instructors, and engaging Aboriginal volunteers as mentors whenever possible to provide young people with opportunities to be inspired, and to see themselves represented in STEM”.

The strategy seems to be working. Talking about her experience at the Codemakers launch in Iqaluit, one excited little girl says, “I got to record throat songs with my friends and I got to control my own video game. I didn’t know much about computers before I came here.”

Designing hardware and programming with Scratch software. Photo courtesy of Actua
Designing hardware and programming with Scratch software. Photo courtesy of Actua

Parents echo their amazement about the impact of the experience on their children. One parent remarked that her son never tells her much about his day but he could not stop talking about the robots and programming them.

Udloriak Hanson, member of Actua’s Board of Directors, visited Actua’s camp in Apex, a small community just outside of Iqaluit.

“Inuit are using technology to not only adapt to our rapidly changing way of life but to actually capitalize on that change as well. We’ve developed keyboard applications for syllabics, we are digitizing Elders stories, we’re using social media to share and sell country food, and arts and crafts. GPS technology and mapping applications are essential tools for harvesting and recording effects of erratic weather patterns. We need to empower our youth with an early understanding of computer science and give them the skills to further drive innovation in these areas,” says Hanson.

As community organizations like Actua, young role models like Kristen, and local communities and volunteers work together, and as innovative programs like Codemakers build foundational skills in computer science and digital literacy, northern youth are finding their foothold as informed citizens, future leaders, and drivers of innovation. For more information about Actua, visit www.actua.ca; for Codemakers visit codemakers.ca