What influenced your decision to conduct research on Aboriginal learners and their under-representation in post-secondary science programs?
When I moved to Lethbridge – which is located on Blackfoot territory – 20 years ago, I was surprised to see very few Blackfoot students on campus, particularly in the sciences. As someone of Métis heritage, with an undergraduate degree in the sciences, I knew I was a rarity.
It left me with a lot of questions about how science was taught to Aboriginal learners in elementary and high schools. A lot of people, especially Aboriginal learners, don’t learn from textbooks and I wanted to understand the pedagogy of why science was taught that way.
My doctoral thesis examined why we don’t see First Nations people in the sciences, and how only a few succeed when most don’t. How did they succeed when most don’t? To answer this, I looked to Aboriginal individuals who had succeeded in the sciences to understand how they were able to.
So why aren’t Aboriginal learners succeeding in the sciences?
The pedagogy that the curriculum is currently built on – sitting in rows and solving problems from a textbook – is a formulaic teaching methodology that all kids go through. But the language of science written in the textbook is so different from what most First Nations people grow up with and how they learn.
Aboriginal students need to see success where they are. Currently, science and math are taught in a Western traditional way, which doesn’t work for a population of people who are hands-on plural learners. It doesn’t make any sense to them. It’s not part of their cultural vocabulary – their way of knowing.
This issue needs to be addressed when they’re young if we want more Aboriginal students to enter post-secondary science programs. This is why my current research has moved to middle school and high school.
How is your research tackling the challenge of relating the science curriculum in a First Nations context?
I conducted a pilot project with Grades 10 and 11 students from January to May 2012 in a Blackfoot Aboriginal community. I specifically chose one male and one female Blackfoot student from the University of Lethbridge as Research Assistants so that they could also serve as mentors with the students – to illustrate that the possibility really does exist for these students to go to post-secondary.
Can you share more details of how this pilot project unfolded in the classroom?
In this school, students were not succeeding in science and none were pursuing chemistry in grades 11 or 12.
We began working with them by finding the chemistry in what they already knew (cultural stories, everyday living) and then connecting that through performative inquiry to get the students interested in science. In other words, teaching science in a different kind of performative way.
When I talk about Aboriginal science, everything is interrelated and interconnected so it’s really hard to distill this into Western concepts of chemistry, physics, and math. It just doesn’t work that way for most Aboriginal people. It’s hard for them to make connections to just chemistry and biology.
We have to start with something they know first; something cultural so they have something tangible – and not obscure – to work with. So I take these concepts and get students to act them out. For example, I use a chemical reaction and work backwards. The curriculum is still very important, but I’m starting in a different place.
One basic concept we begin with is bonding and specifically ionic and covalent bonding. To illustrate this I have two students come together and link their arms to demonstrate a strong covalent bond or stand very close together as a weak ionic bond.
Little skits (performative inquiry) using a scenario such as dating and marriage and a jealous girlfriend are used to demonstrate the strength of the bond.
Using a topic relevant and metaphoric to their own lives is critical for enabling the student to make the connections; at this age, dating and relationships are the focus. So when they see the relational and metaphoric connections, it makes a little bit more sense to them.
For the pilot project, we chose the Napi stories. Napi is a trickster in Blackfoot culture. We worked with the students to link this story with the six basic reactions in chemistry.
They were able to connect five of the reactions to a story that takes place between an Elder and a scientist, and the students acted out the culture and the reactions.
This pilot was incredible amount of work. We were working with resistant population of disengaged Aboriginal adolescents.
After the performance, we surveyed students about how they felt about the project. Many, especially those who were resistant, thought that this project was a way to not have to do science and just do drama.
Every single one of them who stayed with the project said they now plan to go to post-secondary education; and every single one of them hoped that and wanted us to come back in the Fall to continue the project; and three of the resistant students came out of their shell in a way that I thought was amazing.
They all got their science and drama credits, and now this particular group of students are going to continue on.
What factors led students to not only engage in science, but to develop aspirations to attend post-secondary institutions?
The students came out of this believing that they could do it – that they don’t need to get an “A”. In science, “A” oftentimes is the only marker and it is the “A” students who are sought after. But in my opinion, “A” students are not necessarily the best students. What kinds of practical abilities do they have?
The students who struggle, but work hard, are the types that I would want to employ. These Blackfoot students began to believe in themselves instead of having that auto-reaction of ‘…I can’t do that.’ The pilot explored ways that they could do science and it worked well.
Given the oppressive environment that many of these students are in they often feel they can’t go on to post-secondary education. I would like to see that mantra change for them. Success at something can enable that shift.
What do you think could be the potential long-term impact for your research?
I would like to track the students who participated in this pilot project to see how well they continue to do in the sciences. I would like to do a longitudinal study following a cohort through to Grade 12 and then to university for at least 5 years to see what they do, what paths they choose, and to determine how successful they are.
It takes longer for Aboriginal students to get through high school, and this happens at university as well, so a longitudinal study is necessary. There are many social implications that cause this to happen.
I also believe that we have to start working with younger students if we’re going to address the need to teach science and math differently, or invite the Aboriginal culture into the teaching “two-eyed seeing” (presenting both the Western and Aboriginal point of view).
We start to lose these students early, even before Grades 7 or 8, and we have certainly lost them by high school if they haven’t seen success by Grade 7. I would like to start working with grades 4-6 students, and using older students to mentor the younger students. Younger children look up to the older children so mentoring is key.
How would you like to see things in ten years?
This disengagement I’m talking about is universal among Aboriginal communities so I would like to see my research influence other Aboriginal communities. In urban centres, Aboriginal students are scattered so it’s more difficult to follow cohorts, but it can be done on-reserve.
I am particularly interested in curriculum development and would like to see the development of resource materials for teachers along with tools and methodologies for teaching differently. I think that increasingly, we’re seeing the trend of student disengagement among non-aboriginal students too. As educators, we’re all going to have to re-educate ourselves to teach differently, particularly in the sciences.
Who should be paying attention to your research?
Universities, governments… any educational body.
With the ongoing First Nations population growth, if we focus our educational endeavours on this population, I think that we’re going to see a huge turnaround. I disagree with anyone who tells me that Aboriginal learners “can’t do this and can’t do that.”
I think that this population is very able, and they want to succeed, but the past has always been one of doors closing, and teaching in a “Eurocentric” way doesn’t work for a culture that doesn’t learn that way. This population will succeed if we change the way we teach.
I would like to see disadvantaged students get a leg up – that they are worthy of a second look, of being heard, and have a voice and a place in education so that they’re able to succeed and take that back to their community as role models.
There is always more than one way to do something. The Western way is not necessarily the only way.
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