On-the-land STEM program for high school credit to expand to northern Indigenous communities

An education program directed at helping Indigenous youth in acquire high-school credits through culturally relevant approaches to science, technology, engineering and mathematics is expanding to the North.

Actua's InSTEM program to reach Yukon, N.W.T. and northern Alberta

Actua, a national charitable organization, has received funding to expand a for-credit STEM program to northern communities. (Actua)

A program that blends land-based learning, traditional knowledge and science and technology for high school credit will be expanding to a number of northern Indigenous communities.

Over the next two years 65-75 Indigenous youth in Yukon, Northwest Territories and Northern Alberta will take part in Actua's for-credit InSTEM program thanks to $2.3 million in funding from the Government of Canada's Future Skills Centre.

Actua is a national charitable organization that is dedicated to building confidence and skill in youth in STEM. 

Doug Dokis, director of the InSTEM program, said the greatest barrier between Indigenous youth and their career pathways is high school graduation rates.

The 2016 Census found 86 per cent of Canadians aged 25 to 64 had earned a high school diploma or equivalency certificate, while almost 70 per cent of Indigenous people of the same age group had done the same.

Doug Dokis, director of Actua's InSTEM program, said he hopes the for-credit program will help increase high school graduation rates. (Actua)

Dokis, who is Anishinaabe from Dokis First Nation near North Bay, Ont., said earning high school credit for the program will mean it has more of an impact on students' educational outcomes.

"It's letting these youth in these regions know the local knowledge they inherently have is equally as valuable as a STEM knowledge that they're receiving within the school systems," he said.

Working with communities

A general model of the program is applied in communities but there are modifications made to fit with individual cultures and customs.

Dokis said STEM sector jobs are the careers of the future that can particularly help Indigenous communities through existing challenges that they might be facing, like helping communities address local issues like water and food production.

Actua's InSTEM program has been around for 25 years and has been delivered in 200 Indigenous communities.

The for-credit InSTEM program ran as a pilot in 2017 at Gloucester Secondary School in Ottawa. Last summer it ran in Six Nations, Dokis First Nation and Akwesasne.

There are two parts of the program: during the academic year an Indigenous science course that will get the students credit on their transcripts and a summer land based program that takes place in their communities for 11 to 15 days.

Students from the inSTEM program at Six Nations participating in a medicinal hike at the Five Oaks Education and Retreat Centre in Paris, Ont., last summer. (Actua/Western Engineering Outreach/Six Nations)

At Six Nations, Six Nations Polytechnic partnered with Actua to provide a 15-day land camp. Actua was the primary funder of the program and also sent some of their InSTEM team to support different activities like building a bridge and a wind turbine.

The camp brought together local youth and also youth from Aamjiwnaang First Nation near Sarnia, Ont.

 Aaron Hobbs, principal of Six Nations Polytechnic's STEAM academy, said the program was well-received by the community, who actively took part by sharing their traditional knowledge through stories, moccasin making and plant identification.

One of the land-based learning activities saw the students go on the water paddling canoes. While they were doing that,  they were also learning traditional stories of the water and the scientific properties of water, with an emphasis on sustainability and protecting it for future generations.

Going north

Jennifer Flanagan, CEO of Actua  said the organization's priority is to look for people missing from the science and technology sector and to develop programs across the country that can engage those youth. This includes programs for at-risk youth and female youth.

She said the for-credit InSTEM program hasn't gone to northern communities before because of the financial cost, but the new funding will change that. 

Actua does have a northern presence running summer camps and in-school workshops across the Northwest Territories, Yukon, Nunavut, northern Quebec and Labrador.

"So much of our society now is influenced, backed and driven by technology and science, it's become more broad than just making sure we have a future workforce that can fill those jobs," said Flanagan.

"It's really about preparing these youth to thrive and live."


Rhiannon Johnson is an Anishinaabe journalist from Hiawatha First Nation based in Toronto. She has been with CBC since 2017 focusing on Indigenous life and experiences.