Engineering Outreach Office receives award for Indigenous youth education

The Aboriginal Access to Engineering program aims to engage students in the STEM fields

An Aboriginal Access to Engineering classroom workshop.
Supplied by Michelle-Lynn Kennedy

The Engineering Outreach office’s Aboriginal Access to Engineering program has two main goals: to educate Indigenous youth and provide them with strong role models. On Jan. 18, these efforts were honoured through a national award.

Launched in 2011, Aboriginal Access to Engineering (AAE) is an educational outreach program aimed at exposing Indigenous youth to the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math). Through activities, lessons and an afterschool club, the initiative teaches STEM content in enjoyable and accessible ways for Indigenous students. In total, they’ve worked with over 20,000 youth. 

Ranging from kindergarden to grade 12, educators go into classrooms and lead students through lessons in subjects like math, robotics and physics. On top of keeping the content relevant, they keep up-to-date with STEM education and maintain an essential component of Indigenous cultural relevance as well. 

The success of AAE earned them the Actua Experience Award for Indigenous Youth in STEM this month. The initiative was recognized for contributing to the increase in self-identified Indigenous students in the Faculty of Engineering, growing from four in 2011 to 37 this year. 

Melanie Howard, who is the director of outreach and of the AAE program, told The Journal the initiative is essential to ensuring Indigenous students are aware of engineering as both an existing educational sphere and a potential future path. She said Indigenous students often aren’t fully aware of what engineering is because they aren’t acquainted with the field.

“[AAE is an] initiative enabling more Indigenous peoples to succeed in engineering and become professional engineers,” she explained. “The educational reality is that many Indigenous youth don’t have the prerequisites to enter into an engineering program. So that youth outreach became a strong focus ... in order to build an awareness of what engineering is.”  

A focal point of the program is a commitment to providing strong role models for Indigenous students. All AAE permanent staff are Indigenous, including Howard. 

“One of the important things to me as director was to provide the kids we work with with Indigenous role models as well,” she said. “You can commit to come in and speak about engineering and science, but to actually have it be someone who’s from your community, culturally, was very important to me.” 

The Journal also spoke to Michelle-Lynn Kennedy, the Aboriginal community engagement coordinator, who regularly facilitates the program in classrooms. Kennedy said the focus on robotics this year has made for exciting learning opportunities for the students, as the synergy of math and robotics keeps them engaged. 

“I think the most rewarding part of this job is when students come up to me and say, ‘Maybe I’ll be an engineer, maybe I’ll take science,’” Kennedy stated. 

“I’m planting the idea in their head about what engineering is and that they do have to take math and science, and that it can be fun. I think at the end of the day ... it makes me feel excited that they’re ... thinking about these things.” 

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