One of the greatest things abut being a gradate student is the diverse spectrum of opportunities that are afforded to. you From racing around a mall in a wheelchair as part of study, to “washing” brains for high school demos, volunteer opportunities abound and can add a bit of fun to your graduate experience.
I had the great opportunity last week to travel to the Kitigan Zibi First Nations reserve, about 5 hours north of Montreal, for the Quebec Aboriginal Science Fair. Held since 1998, this annual event sees bright aboriginal children from communities across Quebec presenting their original ideas at a different reserve every year. This year was the most successful to date, with 16th First Nations represented by children in grades 5-11 in the science fair final. Together with 5 other Let’s Talk Science volunteers and the Aboriginal Outreach Coordinator for McGill, we travelled to Kitigan Zibi on Monday with our boxes of displays, demonstrations, treats and prizes. The group was diverse; we were all McGill students in various disciplines within the realm of the sciences, which was in itself a welcome change from most school related events!!
Our job as science educators was straightforward enough: present different scientific ideas, such as the concept of inertia, glycolysis or human reflexes, in a fun, relaxed and interactive way. We were amazed the reactions from the students to our demos; astonishment, excitement, eagerness to explore the topic further. Something as simple as the “jellybean experiment” to illustrate the sense of taste had kids swarming around our table, full of questions and wanting to repeat the experiment. What blew me away, however, was the sophistication and creativity of the displays created by the student themselves. Executed with such care, they were perfect canvases to showcase the intelligence and curiosity of these kids, and the pride they had in the their work, well deserved, as lovely to see. Some students had travelled more than 10 hours from remote Northern communities to attend the fair, and the support they were receiving from their teachers, and their eagerness to take full advantage of the opportunity, was inspirational. I will be the first to say that until the trip, I had never deeply explored the history of Aboriginal people in Canada, apart from the cursory overview given in high school. However, learning more about the complex issues faced by first nations in Canada from our excellent outreach coordinator, Kakwirano:ron, I became more acutely aware of the unique challenges that these children must overcome to achieve academically and vocationally, in addition to the “normal” tribulations associated with being a teenager. For this, I have such a deep admiration of the teachers that make these challenges a bit easier to surmount and who encourage their students to do so. Although it was a short experience in a somewhat controlled setting, the depth of the problem of education in certain communities peeked through from time and time, and for me, highlighted the urgency of the situations in many classrooms.
All of this to say, the experience was fascinating, unique and incredibly rewarding, and I had the opportunity to meet intelligent, dynamic and creative kids whose spirits, I hope, will continue to be kept alive by role models who believe in their potential. Outreach to students and to communities is so important to encourage kids’ pursuit of higher education, and it is an extremely worthwhile cause that I wholeheartedly encourage everyone to engage in. Trust me: your experiences, and the people that you meet, are most definitely worth it!