ABORIGINAL SCIENCE EDUCATION. NOVEL APPROACHES AND PLANNING FOR THE BEGINNING OF THE NEW MILLENNIUM
by Dr. Nazih Noureldin and Herman Michell
Dr. Nazih Noureldin Head
As society continues to rely more heavily on technology, it is increasingly important that there should be a large proportion of aboriginal people with sound scientific backgrounds. There has been, therefore, a great need to promote programs in science among First Nations students in order to attract them into scientific professions. In order to attract Aboriginal high school students to the university, several approaches were attempted. Although pulling students towards the university proved to be difficult, retaining them turned out to be more challenging particularly in the science field. However, the Department of Science in the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College (SIFC) thanks to several projects, have started to reap the benefits of its efforts.
In addition to increase the enrolment in science classes, our projects were designed to foster a sense of discipline and hard work, requirements for all scientific careers. The successful conclusion of our attempts, so far, indicates that involvement of students in finding solutions to real research problems provides motivation and enthusiasm among the participants. Interestingly, within a short period of time, several participants became role models for other aboriginal students whom otherwise may not have considered the option of majoring one of the sciences.
Enrolment of aboriginal students in chemistry classes, for example, has been increasing dramatically since the start of these programs. Due to numerous considerations, several Aboriginal students have become motivated while developing much needed scientific and social confidence.
Our programs, which shall be presented in this paper, have as their main objective the motivation of students to enter careers that have not traditionally been pursued by Aboriginal people.
It has only been a few short years since the Science Department at the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College (SIFC) has started new programs with the objectives of attracting Aboriginal students to and retaining them at the science field. Theses programs have as its main objective the motivation of students to enter careers that have not traditionally been pursued by aboriginal people.
One of the primary objectives of our plan has been to encourage Aboriginal students to consider joining scientific research programs. The excitement associated with active participation in a research project is a time-tested method for encouraging interest in science.
These programs which are targeting First Nation people, the majority of whom have very little, if any, scientific background, have started to show very positive results. For the first time in history, the students at SIFC are taking a positive attitude with respect to becoming science majors. Enrolment of aboriginal students in chemistry classes, for example, has been increasing dramatically since the start of these programs. Due to numerous considerations, several Aboriginal students have become motivated while developing much needed scientific and social confidence. As evidence that the students are doing real science and acquiring useful information, it can be noted that two second-year university Aboriginal students made presentations at an International Chemistry Conference. In addition, an article based on their work has been published in a leading chemistry journal.
As we enter the new millennium, one of the growing concerns among First Nation people in Canada is the under-representation of Aboriginal students in all science disciplines such as health-related professions. For those students who are interested in working with Aboriginal populations, there is a requirement for an understanding of basic science as well as traditional healing philosophies and approaches. Furthermore, as society continues to rely more and more heavily on technology, it is increasingly important that there should be a large proportion of Aboriginal people with a balanced scientific background. There has been, therefore, a great need to initiate, develop, and promote programs in science among First Nations students in order to attract them into scientific professions.
The Saskatchewan Indian Federated College (SIFC) first opened its doors in May of 1976 with only a handful of Aboriginal students. It is the only independently administered university-college in Canada that is geographically located in the heartland of the Precambrian Shield. SIFC is affiliated with the University of Regina and is a member of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. The mission of the college is to serve the academic, cultural, and spiritual needs of First Nations students. While it caters to the needs of the First Nations students, the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College also accepts students from all nations and from all walks of life.
RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
It is unfortunate that the mainstream institutions at all levels have not been able to address the needs of First Nation people in the areas of math and science training. In response to this crisis, the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College established the Department of Science in 1987. In spite of this, Aboriginal student’s enrolment in scientific related disciplines was kept at an extremely low level. Consequently, several new and innovative programs were launched with the objectives of attracting more Aboriginal students and retaining them in their chosen fields of science.
Although our programs are still in its infancy stages nevertheless, they have started to show some positive results. For example, there are several evidences that the students at SIFC, for the first time in history, are taking a positive attitude with respect to becoming science majors. Enrolment of aboriginal students in chemistry classes, for example, has been increasing dramatically. More importantly, due to numerous considerations, several Aboriginal students have become motivated while developing much needed scientific and social confidence. As evidence that the students are doing real science and acquiring useful information, two second-year university aboriginal students made presentations at the 81st Canadian Chemical Society Conference and Exhibition at Whistler, British Columbia in June of 1998. An article based on their work has been published in the ‘Synthesis" Journal of Chemistry. In another example, a chemistry workshop held by our science students on July 7th, 1998 received wide media coverage and honourably appraised by government and university officials along with a big gathering of Saskatchewan Aboriginal families. Moreover, during the past two years, six Aboriginal students have decided to major in chemistry, two of them gave presentations at the University of Northern Arizona in the summer of 2000.
This is only a glimpse of what has been achieved at the Department of Science thanks to the unique learning environment that was created and the types of programs that were developed and initiated in accordance with the needs of First Nations people in Canada.
I. The Learning Environment
The learning environment at the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College is an essential element in our ability to attract and retain our science students. Coming to the campus for the first time can be a terrifying experience for many students. Our aim in the Science Department is to provide a "home away from home" environment by providing a circle of support that is student-centred. The challenge is to provide a responsive, supportive, and holistic environment that confronts the mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual development of each student in a context of community and life-long learning. Student networking and faculty mentoring is encouraged and promoted to ease the transition. Within this circle of support are the Traditional Elders and Academic counsellors who provide counselling and guidance in an atmosphere of trust and respect. Student support programs, workshops, and traditional ceremonies are tailored to provide teachings and values from a variety of First Nations foundations. From the moment a student enters the college, they are provided with a wealth of information and resources that include:
Ø application and registration assistance;
Ø college orientation sessions;
Ø individual and group counselling services;
Ø free tutorials and writing clinics;
Ø computer lab services;
Ø awards and scholarships information;
Ø employment and community referral assistance.
Although pulling students towards the university proved to be difficult, retaining them turned out to be more challenging particularly in the science field. Consequently the Science Department at the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College has been attempting several approaches in order to overcome some of these major obstacles. While there are high school graduates who have some science knowledge, there is a trend of mature students coming back to school after many years of absence. For these students, the college provides remedial courses that allow them to develop the required academic skills in order for them to succeed in their first year of post-secondary studies. The class sizes are small, which allow instructors to spend more time with students who are struggling with scientific concepts and problems. Careful attention is paid in using examples that students are familiar with. In addition, laboratory time is provided in many of the courses as well as free tutorial sessions. Traditional elders and resource people are often used where appropriate in order to provide a balanced perspective while maintaining student interest and enthusiasm. It is not uncommon for a biology instructor for instance to invite an elder to explain the cycle of life and the relationship it has with biology and living organisms.
Science Liaison Program
In order to attract and retain students in the sciences, the college took the initiative to establish a Science Liaison Program. This program is a vital link between the college and First Nation schools. A full time liaison officer along with an assistant were hired to go directly into the communities to promote the sciences, college programs, and career opportunities as well as assist in application processes. In addition, the liaison officer is closely involved with the students once they are accepted into the college by ensuring they are given every opportunity to access all the resources needed to succeed in their programs of choice.
Summer Math/Science and Health Careers Camp
In direct connection with the Science Liaison Program, the Science Department offers a Math/Science and Health Careers Camp every summer for Aboriginal high school students. It is natural for young people to be apprehensive about leaving their home environment to attend a university setting for the first time. The summer camp was established to ease this critical transition. Students with an academic interest in sciences spend one week at the University of Regina where they are exposed to a variety of role models, workshops, activities, traditional teachings and ceremonies. This experience allows them to develop an interest in sciences and give them first hand exposure to university campus life.
The camp daily schedule is designed to provide students with a sense of discipline, motivation, and interest. From early morning to late evenings, students are exposed to a variety of interactive science-related presentations in Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Math, Computer Science, Astronomy, and Geology. Traditional elders and resource people are used to introduce students to a variety of Aboriginal concepts, belief systems, ceremonies, and teachings. Tours are made to another university to visit the College of Medicine, Physiotherapy, Nursing, and Veterinarian departments. The highlight of this visit is a hospital surgery ward where students are able to see first hand some of the activities performed by doctors and nurses in this area. Entertainment and fun activities are also introduced in order to balance the weekly schedule. The feedback from the students at the end of the week is positive; some of their quotes follow:
"Math was very interesting and surprisingly easy to master".
"Chemistry was a great experience, mixing chemicals was awesome!"
"It was really cool to find out how long it takes for garbage to disintegrate"
"Physics was really interesting."
"The surgery was really fascinating. It was not as bloody as I thought it would be. I saw a lady get her gallbladder taken out and it was kind of neat."
"I absolutely loved the biology class. I liked magnifying the little parasites from the lake."
"Stars and heavens were awesome and beautiful. I hope to learn more information on the topic of astronomy."
"I liked the HIV thing. Amazing, I got to see things that I always wanted to."
"I loved it and I’m thinking of entering the field of engineering."
"Ken was a great role model and I learned a lot from him. I thought it was great to know that he was the fifth native to graduate in 127 years in agriculture."
"Dr. Ron Martin and dentistry are really cool. Ron is a real role model."
"The opening ceremonies were something that I wanted to experience for a long time. I am glad as finally got the chance to do it."
University Entrance Program
In our continued attempt to provide accessible post-secondary education for aboriginal people, our college offers a university entrance program for those students who do not meet the required admission requirements. This program is available to all Canadian citizens or landed immigrants who satisfy the English proficiency requirement of the University and are at least 21 years of age prior to the beginning of the semester for which they apply. Those who are accepted will normally take a mixture of remedial and regular university classes for a period of one academic year or until they have completed a minimum of 15 credits with a required academic average. Students with an interest in Science will take courses that may include math, biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, astronomy, geology, and any other electives. Prior to the commencement of registration, students are encouraged to undergo Math and English placement testing to determine what level and what courses they need in order to satisfy the necessary academic standards. Once they satisfy admission requirements into the faculty of science, they are transferred into the program of their choice.
One of our major challenges under the University Entrance Program was to alleviate some of the anxiety involved with taking math and science courses. We found that many Aboriginal students experience a tremendous amount of stress when it comes to taking math courses. One of the major reasons is that they are basically not taught a wide range of basic mathematical and scientific concepts at the elementary and high school levels. This leads to their inability to understand the fundamental principles and complex concepts at the post-secondary level. Unable to cope, many eventually drop out or choose another career path that they may not be suitable for.
In order to tackle this issue, the Science Department took the initiative to design three adult math courses.
Ø AMTH 001-Algebra;
Ø AMTH 002-Calculas;
Ø AMTH 003-Geo-Trig.
Because these math classes are small in size, instructors are able to give plenty of AMTH 001-Algebra; AMTH 002-Calculas; AMTH 003-Geo-Trig. Because these classes are small in size, instructors are able to give adequate individual attention to students. Mandatory labs are also assigned so students are able to work through and expand their knowledge base in problematic areas. In addition, free tutorials and student mentoring is available if needed. Old fears of math and science quickly disappear as instructors strive to create a personal, supportive, caring, and scholastic environment.
Pre-professional Health and Science Program
Aboriginal people in Canada are currently in the process of taking over their own health and other services. In order to have meaningful control, a variety of professionals are needed with the appropriate university education. The Saskatchewan Indian Federated College is one of the leading Aboriginal educational institutions that is involved in developing culturally relevant programs in order to meet the skilled manpower needs of First Nation communities. The Pre-professional Health and Science Program was developed to provide Aboriginal students with first and second year university courses needed for entry into professional degree programs such as Medicine, Nursing, Dentistry, Optometry, Pharmacy, Veterinary Medicine, Physical Therapy, and Agriculture. The courses are designed to integrate traditional teachings with math and science with relevance to contemporary First Nations concerns and issues.
Indian Health Study Program
In order to increase the number of students in professional health programs, the Science Department offers a two-year certificate in Indian Health Studies which may be credited towards a Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.), Bachelor of Applied Science (BASc) in Environmental Health & Science, or a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.).
Environmental Health and Applied Sciences Program
One of our most exiting new initiatives is our four-year Environmental Health and Applied Science Program. Once more, this program was established in response to the increasing responsibilities being assumed by First Nations and Tribal Councils for health care and environmental safeguards. Indigenous people all over the world have always maintained their sacred relationship with the Earth. Therefor, it is appropriate that there be a program in place where students can learn the skills and knowledge needed to exercise this ancient responsibility. In a unique partnership with the University of Regina, Engineering Department, the program is designed to give students an opportunity to learn the latest theories in science, health and other university subjects along with traditional values and knowledge of Indigenous people.
Students who graduate from this program are equipped with the skills and knowledge necessary to give leadership in addressing problems in the areas of environmental health and science. Because there is currently a severe shortage of Aboriginal people in the areas of environmental health in Canada, it is not surprising there are many job opportunities waiting for them. In addition of having BASc, graduates also have the option of taking a short examination in order to become Public Health Inspectors.
First Nations Nursing Program
In another unique partnership, the First Nations Nursing Program was established through the collaborative efforts of SIFC, the University of Saskatchewan, the Medical Services Branch of Health Canada, and First Nations organizations. This program is offered and tailored for registered nurses that work, or willing to work, in isolated or remote First Nations communities where treatment and primary care are provided. It provides an expanded scope of practice in community health and primary care nursing.
The program provides two different certificates and is currently delivered at SIFC Northern Campus, Prince Albert.
Ø Community Health Nursing prepares the diploma nurse for the role of the Community Health Nurse in health promotion and disease prevention.
Ø Primary Care Nursing focuses on integration of advanced clinical assessment, case management and application of evidence-based practice of primary care across the life span.
Similar to Indian Health Study, the Nursing Programs also allow students to transfer their university credits towards other programs of their choice.
Professional Training of Undergraduate Aboriginal Science Students Program
It is a research project that is a part of a long-term program that the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College (SIFC) has undertaken to encourage aboriginal young adults to consider careers in science or technology.
From September to April each year, the students receive three hours weekly of laboratory training on the proper use of scientific equipment. From May to August each year they are engaged full-time in actual research work.
The project fosters a sense of discipline and hard work, requirements for all scientific careers. The students receive hands on experience with state-of-the-art laboratory equipment and computers. This experience has been developing confidence and providing work based training not normally available to regular undergraduate students. Such an experience, according to several potential employers, will give the trainees an edge in employability. Students attend scientific conferences and go on field trips to work sites to acquire experience with respect to industrial settings.
This project, that provides training and stimulation over and above the regular university classes, which the students take, should serve as an extremely valuable practical educational experience. It is providing them with an introduction to scientific research, an exposure to the various jobs available in science and increases their confidence to consider a career in science or technology.
The program has several objectives:
Ø The primary objective is to encourage Aboriginal students to consider a career in science. The excitement associated with active participation in a research project is a time-tested method for encouraging interest in science. It has been a highly effective method for attracting promising non-Aboriginals into scientific disciplines and a similar response can be expected from Aboriginal students.
Ø A secondary objective is to train Aboriginal students in the use of the-state-of-the-art instrumentation. They have an opportunity to put the theory learned in classrooms into practice by using instruments such as infrared, ultra violet and nuclear magnetic resonance spectrophotometers and mass spectrometers, as well as several types of chromatographs. Such techniques are essential to many scientific fields; e.g. environmental, medical and pharmaceutical.
Ø This project is intended to lower apprehension about science and encourage interest and continuous participation by Aboriginal students in scientific fields. The completion of the project by the students will make them role models for other First Nations youth.
Ø Although the minimum educational requirement for most disciplines in industrial and private sectors remains a B. Sc. degree, the current fiscal restraints have resulted in large numbers of qualified applicants for fewer positions. Additional educational qualifications, experience or training is often necessary for a candidate to be successful. Familiarity with the use of state-of-the-art analytical instrumentation, which is provided by this project, would furnish the applicant with a competitive edge over those having the same qualifications but without the added problem solving and practical laboratory experience.
The first phase of this program started by training three Aboriginal students in the winter of 1997. The successful conclusion of the first phase indicates that involvement of students in finding solutions to real research problems provides motivation and enthusiasm among the participants. As it was expected, these trainees became, in turn, role models for other aboriginal students who otherwise may not have considered the option of majoring one of the sciences.
The following have been achieved to date:
Ø To compensate for the lack of scientific facilities at SIFC, the U of R is providing, although very limited, laboratory spaces for Aboriginal students and permitting the use of valuable facilities. This is enabling Aboriginal students for the first time in SIFC history to use advanced scientific equipment normally available only to graduate students.
Ø Through several contacts with the industrial sector, it was possible for the trainees to make field trips to different work sites. This provided them with an excellent opportunity for contacting potential employers while observing the use of sophisticated equipment that is so much a part of technology today.
Ø Several employers, who have acknowledged this educational program as making our students highly employable, have reinforced the value of this project.
Ø The project has enabled the three Aboriginal trainees to pursue careers in science. In 2000, all of them are expected to finish their degrees, one as a nurse and the other two as chemists.
Ø For the first time in history, the students at SIFC are taking a positive attitude with respect to becoming science majors. Enrolment in chemistry classes, for example, has been increasing dramatically. A substantial increase has occurred from one student at the introductory level in 1991 to 30 in 1999. In addition, four higher levels of chemistry classes have been regularly by the Department of Science.
Ø Since starting this program, 6 students have decided to major in chemistry.
Ø Through this project and due to their accomplishments and direct contacts with the faculty members and non-Aboriginal students of the U of R in a laboratory setting, the trainees have become motivated while developing much needed scientific and social confidence. For example,
1. The three trainees all gave well prepared scientific seminars to the members of the Department of Chemistry.
2. They also presented their work to other First Nations youth, coming from different Saskatchewan high schools during an open house that was held at the University of Regina in the summer of 1998. This event received uniformly positive evaluations.
Ø As evidence that the students are doing real science and acquiring useful information, it can be noted that two of them made presentations in June 1998 at The 81st Canadian Chemical Society Conference and Exhibition at Whistler, BC.
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