Grade 5 science project leads to water quality testing at school in northern Quebec

Four Grade 5 students at Mistissini Voyageur Elementary School tested water quality at the source of the community's water, as well as at different parts of the school building. The results of their testing showed a potential issue with the quality of the water at the school.

Mistissini students competing this week at provincial Indigenous science fair

a group of Indigenous grade five students stand against a colourful wall with a fish painted on it. They hold certificates their science project has won.
From left to right, Mistissini Voyageur Memorial Elementary Grade 5 students Angel MacLeod, Serena Shecapio, Lucas Trapper and Lennox Swallow hold up their first place certificates from the regional science fair. This week, the students are taking part in a provincial Indigenous science fair in Quebec City. Their project has also led band officials to agree to test water quality at their school. (Voyageur Memorial Elementary/ Facebook)

A science project by a group of elementary school students in northern Quebec has focused attention on a potential issue with the quality of water in the local school. 

It has also brought the students south to compete with their project — called Water: the essence of life — at a provincial Indigenous science fair happening this week in Quebec City.

Four Grade 5 students at Mistissini Voyageur Elementary School tested water quality at the source of the community's water, as well as at different parts of the school building, such as the washrooms, water fountains and in newer and older parts of the school. 

"The goal was to see if there's a difference between the lake water straight from the source … versus once it goes through the pipes and into our schools," said Dominique Roy, the Grade 5 homeroom teacher and one of two professors supporting the students. 

"They did find that we should be filtering our water in the schools," she said, adding that the band office has agreed to carry out further tests.

Roy said the quality of the water source, Mistissini Lake, is very, very good, but down the line in the school the water quality drops noticeably. 

The students also studied four different types of filtering options, including some traditional methods, such as using moss or a heavy cotton, as well as modern charcoal filters. In their evaluation, the students also took into account cost and environmental impacts of the different filtration methods. 

A Science project looking at the quality of water is set up on a table in a school gym.
The group of Grade 5 students at Mistissini Voyageur Memorial Elementary worked on a project about water quality, called Water: the essence of life. (Submitted by Dominique Roy)

The students who are part of the team behind the project are Lennox Swallow, Angel MacLeod, Lucas Trapper and Serena Shecapio. Two of the four are attending the 2023 Quebec Indigenous Science Fair, happening from March 21 to 23 at the Université Laval in Quebec City. 

The event brings together Indigenous students from across Quebec through science projects as a way to promote science and engineering among Indigenous youth.

For 10-year-old Serena Shecapio, taking part in the project was "cool" and a fun experience. She said she enjoyed carrying out the tests and is interested in what she is learning about science.

"It feels good," said Shecapio, who is not one of the two teammates traveling to Quebec City, but will be actively following the experience along with the rest of the class back in Mistissini. 

From her mom's perspective, Serena really needed to challenge herself and move out of her comfort zone to work on the project. 

"I found it really neat," said Peggy Petawabano Shecapio. "Serena kind of pushed herself to finish the project. She managed and I think her self esteem also improved a lot." 

Great way to learn French

The other teacher who helped support the students was their French teacher, Charlotte Rulac. The students carried out their research in both English and French and did a lot of translation work. They also did some of the work in Cree. 

"I think the teaching of a third language has to be done by project with our kids, otherwise it gets really boring just to learn rules about the French language, " said Rulac, adding for most students, French is their third language after Cree and English. 

She said she's already seeing improvements with the students' level of French and sees them making connections with other students who speak French.

"It's not just a language, it's a barrier that they are breaking and they are realizing this," said Rulac.

A group of three young Cree boys stands in front of their science project.
Angel MacLeod, left, Lucas Trapper, centre, and Lennox Swallow, right, stand in front of their science project. (Submitted by Dominique Roy)

For both Rulac and Roy, it is great to see the students use science as a way to express themselves. 

"We are just really excited for them, because it's really a cool experience outside of the sports world that most of the kids tend to move on with some kind of competition with," said Roy. 

"This is just so fun to see academics and see them be excited about it and motivated."

The findings of the testing with different filtration methods were also very interesting, according to Roy. 

The students first filtered the water in the school through moss, a traditional method used by Cree for thousands of years before European contact. The project also tested filtering water through a cotton cloth, something many Cree families use at their bush camps. The students also tested two different kinds of commercially bought charcoal filters. 

Roy said the tests showed the commercial charcoal filters worked best, but also involved significant costs and had environmental impacts from the charcoal and plastics used. 

"However, the moss actually did did succeed in filtering [the water], and it is free and it's traditional," said Roy. "So that was really cool to see."


Susan Bell has worked with CBC News since 1997 as a journalist, writer-broadcaster, radio host and producer. She has been with CBC North since 2009, most recently as a digital producer with the Cree unit in Montreal.