On the first day of Chem 500, a class of first-year students at the University of Lethbridge, Dr. Michelle Hogue asks a simple question: “Who’s afraid of chemistry?” Like clockwork, most of the students raise their hands.
While science can be intimidating for anyone, for First Nations, Métis and Intuit (FNMI) students, there can be additional barriers. Within mainstream education, science is compartmentalized into individual subjects and disciplines (i.e. chemistry, physics, biology, mathematics) – with little inter-relationship or relatedness taught. Science is taught from the theoretical first to the practical much later. For Aboriginal peoples, knowledge is rooted in oral tradition and focuses on interconnection; all things are related and inter-related, and learning is by doing first with the “theory” following after.
Hogue, who is Métis, says this difference in ways of learning and coming to know is a roadblock for Aboriginal learners in the Western education system particularly in science and mathematics, and as a result FNMI students are less likely to enrol in, or complete, university science courses which then prevents them from entering into science-related professions.
Hogue wants to change this. As a U of L professor, researcher and administrator (she coordinates the First Nations Transition Program and teaches within that program), she is passionate about enabling Aboriginal students to bridge traditional ways of knowing and learning (AWKL) with Western science. To do this, she uses techniques that appeal to her students’ heritage and learning style, like the integration of cultural stories and hands-on exercises.
“If you come from an oral culture, and it’s a practical culture, learning by doing comes first and theory comes after,” she explains.
These strategies are based on her own pedagogical scholarship. As a researcher, she explores how Aboriginal students learn best and what teachers can do to blend Aboriginal and Western ways of knowing. Her work has earned her numerous recognitions, including the Canadian Education Association’s 2012 Pat Clifford Award for Early Career Research in Education.
Hogue’s approach resonated with U of L student Aaron Devine, who took Chem 500 after being out school for 11 years: “I was a bit scared because I'd forgotten so much,” he says. But Hogue's style of teaching – as well as her sense of humour and personal approach – helped him adjust. Four years after taking her class, he still asks Hogue chemistry questions from time to time.
Devine pursued science without a lot of community support or role models. “When I was growing up, no one was interested in science,” he says. But while Devine excelled, other FNMI students didn’t – they were intimidated, he thinks. That’s why Devine’s glad Hogue is leading outreach work at Kainai High School on the Blood Reserve where he grew up.
Through her bridging work using performative and narrative inquiries and hands-on first methodologies, Hogue provides safe, culturally relevant community learning environments for Aboriginal students to build positive engaging experiences while learning about science, technology and mathematics (STM). She has run two programs for youth: an after-school science, technology and mathematics group called K’ITSM-Club (filled with hands-on science projects) and Learning Science Through Theatre (which uses the stage to bring science to life).
The K’ITSM-Club creatively bridges cultures to enable the success of Aboriginal students in SMT in meaningful and engaging ways that attend to Aboriginal Ways of Knowing and Learning, Hogue explains.
“Belonging to a club provides a sense of community of like-minded peers and as such can be a positive learning environment,” she says. “It opens up a space to explore in fun and creative ways and provides a sense of belonging.”
Learning Science Through Theatre is used to bridge Aboriginal Ways of Knowing and Coming to Know through cultural stories, such as Napi stories, with Western science.
For example, in the story of Napi and the Rock and A Little Chemistry too, the scientist learns a little Blackfoot culture and the Elder learns a little science as they watch Napi and his pranks. Hogue might also, for instance, get students to create a scene in which a boy and girl fall in love to illustrate a simple addition reaction. Then, to illustrate a single replacement reaction, she might throw in a jealous girl to lure away the boy and break the bond between the couple. She then creates those bridges to the real chemistry.
“You can make it as fun and goofy as possible, but still drive the point home,” she says.
“The initiatives invite and engage Aboriginal students into science by teaching in a different way such that they may be afforded the opportunities to succeed,” says Hogue.
Although she's a shy person by nature, Hogue jumps into scenes herself in order to engage students. But it doesn't take long for students to lose their anxiety and really get into it. “The students are really, really creative,” she says. “I learn so much from how they approach things.”