March 5,1998

Aboriginal students encouraged to become engineers

Max Weiseman
Coordinator, Native Access to Engineering

Imagine if all of the engineering services in the Greater Montreal area were provided by an American firm located 500 miles to the south.
What would happen if a major water main broke? What would happen if large chunks of concrete began falling from the Olympic Stadium? What would happen if every single power line serving the city, save one, were to collapse during an ice storm?
None of these are exaggerated situations. In the aftermath of the ice storm, it took more than a month for every individual and business who had lost power to get it back, and that was with hundreds of local engineers and technicians working around the clock to redesign and rebuild the city's basic power infrastructure.
If all of that expertise were resident somewhere else, where the climate was different, where travel to work meant time away from family and home, people would still be living in shelters and the downtown core might still be closed.
Many aboriginal communities across Canada have no resident engineers. When they require infrastructure development, new buildings, or services like environmental assessments, they need to look outside the community for engineering expertise. While external firms no doubt provide professional service, they are usually located at a distance and have little or no first-hand knowledge of the community or its needs.
In the fall of 1993, the Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science entered into an agreement with the Ordre des ingˇnieurs du Quˇbec to conduct research and identify strategies to increase the number of aboriginal people in the engineering profession.
Under the direction of Corinne Jettˇ, a technical writing professor in the Faculty who is a Tuscarora from the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, the Faculty established the Native Access to Engineering Program, which is now entering its fifth year of operation.
The program began as a summer camp called Engineering Explorations, she explained. We brought more than 150 young people to Concordia over three years.
They came here to learn about engineering through hands-on exploration. It was very popular, but we wanted it to be more than a summer camp and provide a more lasting impression. So last year, we moved into Phase II.
Phase II focuses on developing an understanding of engineering and its links to economic development among educators, as well as students. ńBuilding cooperative partnerships with teachers at the community level is crucial in order to achieve the goals of the program, Jettˇ said.
ńOur program is unique in Canada. The University of Manitoba and Lakehead University have access programs which concentrate on supporting native students who have already made a commitment to post-secondary education. We're trying to attack the problem closer to the root.
Jettˇ and I develop curriculum tools for teachers to use in the classroom. Worksheets link engineering topics to the Secondary IV physical science curriculum in a way that is culturally relevant. For instance, we explained structural loading in terms of snow falling on trees.
Jettˇ and I also produce a teachers' guide to help educators use the worksheets effectively, and a newsletter which highlights the various fields of engineering through thematic examination of how engineers contribute to society. Puzzles, trivia questions, engineering projects and profiles of native engineers bring an understanding of the profession to young readers in a fun-filled format. A Web site is under construction, and the summer program, Engineering Explorations, continues to be offered.
"It's a long-term project", Jettˇ said. "Our first objective is to build the foundation so that young people can dream of ways they can contribute to the growth of their nations. Once a vision is established, they can reach for the concrete means to achieve it."
Students who leave the reserve to come to Concordia won't be lost in the crowd. We have a critical mass of about 150 native students at the University, and a support system on campus through the Centre for Native Education [2110 Mackay St.]. That's a big help in making students feel comfortable when they are away from home and surrounded by an unfamiliar culture. Of the 174 native students at Concordia, seven are enrolled in Engineering.

For more information about the Native Access to Engineering Program, call Dawn Wiseman at 848-7847 or Corinne Jettˇ at 848-3693. They can also be reached by e-mail at Native-Access@encs.
Wiseman is an engineer currently doing an MA in Media Studies.
Dawn Wiseman and Corinne Jettˇ with some of the learning materials they have developed.

Copyright 1998 Thursday Report
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