By Jennifer Flanagan
In April 2019, the Future Skills Centre announced support for Actua’s Indigenous Youth in STEM for-credit programs in Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Northern Alberta. This program is also supported by our corporate sector partners Suncor Energy Foundation and Imperial. I had the pleasure of hearing from participants Jordan Zenhenko and Ethan Boyer (post to come), about their experiences.
Jennifer: Tell me a bit about yourself and your background?
Jordan: I’m Jordan Zenhenko, a 4th year mechanical engineering student at Ontario Tech University in my hometown of Oshawa Ontario. I’m of mixed ancestry. I’m a non-status Indian.
Jennifer: What made you want to be an InSTEM Instructor with Actua this summer?
Jordan: When I learned about the InSTEM Instructor role at Actua I knew it was my dream summer job. I have always wanted to meet other Indigenous youth from around Turtle Island and share what I’ve learned in my post-secondary education. I am passionate about social justice and saw this role as a way of directly making an impact on the lives of Indigenous youth.
Jennifer: What was the training experience like for you?
Jordan: Training for this role was a whirlwind. The office staff at Actua made me feel very comfortable as soon as I got to training and welcomed us with open arms. The training was fast paced due to how many things were covered. We had the opportunity to be campers for content training and participate in the activities that we would be delivering at land camps. After training in Ottawa at the offices, we went to Dokis First Nation to spend another few days learning about indigenous education on the French River. This was very special for me because my grandfather fed my family by hunting and trapping along the French River.
Jennifer: Describe a moment when you felt that a student really connected land-based learning and STEM?
Jordan: While facilitating an activity based on wind energy and the environment, the participants were tasked with designing the most efficient wind turbine blades. A couple of participants used what they had been experiencing for the past week and in previous activities to create turbine blades that looked like a bird’s feather. I asked them about their design and they mentioned that if this design worked for birds to fly, it must be useful in designing other things.
Jennifer: You told the story about how a student’s windmill design was inspired by some of the teachings at the land camp. Specifically, this student explained how their design idea was inspired by the feather. Can you imagine ways in which your land-based experience and exposure to Indigenous world views might influence the perspectives you would have as a practicing engineer once you graduate and move on in that career?
Jordan: My education at Ontario Tech is focused on meeting the challenges that the future Canadian workforce will face, including the ever increasing issue of sustainability. Engineers are responsible for some of the most ecologically devastating projects that exist. In Indigenous world views, concepts such as planning for posterity are taught. Being exposed to these worldviews supplements my university teachings on sustainability in engineering, These worldviews give me perspective on the impact of engineering decisions over long time frames, compared to the short time frames that are often considered by engineers. For example, every land camp we visited was close to freshwater lakes and rivers. These are some of the most vulnerable environments to engineering projects, and seeing how key these environments are to Indigenous culture through land camps gives me a unique perspective on how things such as hydroelectric energy projects affect the lives of indigenous people. As the Earth’s ecological disaster becomes more apparent, the world of business will need to consider Indigenous world views in their economic decisions.
Jennifer: What was it like working alongside community members and knowledge keepers?
Jordan: The knowledge that was imparted on us by knowledge keepers was some of the most substantial knowledge that the participants got. Our activities were not designed by Indigenous voices, and so getting the connections to our curriculum from Indigenous voices was very useful for both our knowledge and the knowledge of the participants. The youth we taught had great respect for any community member or knowledge keeper that was sharing knowledge with them and engaged intently with their teachings.
Jennifer: How has your experience as an InSTEM instructor impacted your worldview?
Jordan: Due to growing up in the most urban area of Canada, I did not get exposed to all of the realities of rural indigenous people’s lives. My experience as an InSTEM instructor exposed me to how a variety of Indigenous people live in Canada, including those in extremely remote areas. It really made me appreciate the privilege I come from due to growing up in an urban area.
Jennifer: What skills have you learned or enhanced due to this experience? Has the instructor experience affected how you will plan your future career? If so, how?
Jordan: Teaching youth in a variety of environments that at times provided challenges gave me great experience problem solving in challenging situations. I learned how to deal with challenges as they come, and how to communicate effectively with team members and participants to overcome these challenges. This experience has made me consider a career in isolated areas of Canada where my engineering education could be very impactful for communities.
Jennifer: What are your personal thoughts on the key differences on students between classroom and land based learning experiences?
Jordan: When students are engaged in land based learning, they are participating in the learning. This is unlike classroom learning where they are the recipients of teaching. This is a key difference, as students are more likely to be engaged and interested in learning when they are a part of it. At land camps, the learning is also culturally relevant which makes the learning personally relevant.
Jennifer: What’s the one greatest thing you can take away from this experience?
Jordan: Mno-bmaadziwin (live the good life)