InEng builds community for Indigenous engineers

Indigenization of STEM requires more than inclusion initiatives 

Image supplied by: Melanie Howard
InEng helps Indigenous students find community through academic programming.

Faculty-led initiatives at Queen’s work to support Indigenous students, but the university has yet to achieve Indigenization in its STEM programs.

Indigenous Futures in Engineering (InEng) began in 2011 and was lauded by the Queen’s Truth and Reconciliation Task Force as an exemplar of Indigenous programming at Queen’s. InEng engages Indigenous engineering students, building a community while providing them with academic supports to succeed, but InEng Director Melanie Howard, ArtSci ’95, Ed ’98, cautions against viewing inclusion as Indigenization.

“What I hear a lot, even though we do have the services, is that [Indigenous students] feel very alone. In a program like engineering, Indigenous representation isn’t high,” Howard said in an interview with The Journal.

Many years ago, Howard noticed a need for this community after a conversation with a colleague at Four Directions Indigenous Student Centre that highlighted engineering students’ underutilization of the centre’s services. 

For Howard, this came as no surprise. Engineering students are very busy, and with their background in science, might not feel they can contribute to the in-depth political or cultural conversations happening in social settings.

“If you’re a first-year engineering student doing physics and calculus, and you’re encountering a very impassioned discussion on Indigenous feminisms, you’re going to be like ‘I don’t even know,’” Howard said.

Howard’s solution was academics-based community building, where students could come together and share their love of STEM. InEng hosts “Transition Week”—an on-campus orientation week where students can meet each other—and provides individual guidance and tutoring for Indigenous students in the Faculty of Engineering.

In 2021, InEng branched out to create STEM Indigenous Academics (STEMInA) funded by three faculties—Arts and Sciences, Health Sciences, and Engineering—to support Indigenous students in all STEM programs at Queen’s.

Howard’s job is to connect students with opportunities to help support them as engineers, in hopes it will bring more Indigenous students into STEM.

“When there are barely any engineers who are Indigenous, it’s really hard for kids to know about the profession, let alone see themselves in the profession,” Howard said.

That said, Indigenous students aren’t a monolith, and don’t all need the same supports. A First Nations student from a remote community who took calculus online has very different needs than a Métis student from Toronto, Howard explained. It’s important to get to know each student personally.

The crowning achievement of InEng came last year, when their team won NASA’s First Nations Launch competition as the only Canadian team. This year, the students have split into two teams, which both have hopes of entering.

Though proud of how fair they’ve come, Howard cautions against seeing InEng’s success as Indigenization.

Indigenization, as defined by the Queen’s Office of Indigenous Initiatives, is including Indigenous ways of knowing in education through traditional and cultural knowledge. As opposed to inclusion policies, it doesn’t seek to assimilate Indigenous people within an institution, but to create a wider consensus on what “counts” as knowledge.

“Just adding Indigenous students to engineering classes doesn’t Indigenize the profession,” Howard said.

InEng is an inclusion program supporting Indigenous students in STEM, but isn’t focused on Indigenizing the engineering program itself.

According to Howard, there are many barriers to Indigenizing engineering compared to other programs. Indigenizing engineering classes isn’t always practical. In order to get accredited, engineers need a set amount of class hours in highly specific areas, and these classes are regulated. 

“We can’t Indigenize everything necessarily, like Indigenizing long division isn’t always possible, and kids still have to learn that,” Howard said. 

Though complex, Indigenizing STEM subjects is a worthwhile endeavour. For Howard, Indigenous knowledge systems have consistently been pushed aside as myths or legends, instead of insight into scientific phenomena.

“The sciences look at really critical questions on things like climate and environment, and Indigenous knowledge has, for a very long time, been pushed aside in favour of a Western viewpoint,” Howard said. 

For example, Indigenous communities have long used cultural burning, or controlled fires, as a land management tactic. However, this knowledge has been pushed to the side, resulting in a buildup of fuels across the Canadian landscape. The summer of wildfires is a testament to what can happen when Indigenous perspectives aren’t taken into account. 

Indigenous traditional knowledge is the “missing piece” in our scientific understanding, Howard said. This knowledge can help us understand how our climate has changed over thousands of years, or even track astronomical events.


Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, Indigenization, InEng, STEM

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