A chair made of nails sits in the room, inviting children to have a seat. It’s a science experiment, one of many at Science East in Fredericton and on this particular day the grades three through five students from Chief Harold Sappier Memorial Elementary School are lining up to try it out.
Tarren Bear shyly says that it doesn’t hurt. “It’s awesome to see her involved in this,” says her
mom, Jessica Thibodeau, also a teacher at the St. Mary’s First Nations school. “I’ve seen a lot of interest in her just from learning new things and the spark in eyes about how cool she thinks science is. It’s awesome.”
Increasing Indigenous people’s participation in science, technology, engineering and math,
collectively known by the acronym STEM, is a priority for federal, provincial and Indigenous governments, industry groups and post-secondary institutions. Indigenous people are underrepresented in the STEM fields, which are expected to dominate economic growth over the next decade as New Brunswick and the rest of Canada accelerates the transition to a knowledge-driven economy.
A 2016 Engineers Canada report examining that gap found that about 1 per cent of undergraduate engineering students identified as First Nations, Métis or Inuit. According to Statistics Canada’s 2011 National Household Survey, Indigenous people represent about 4.3 per cent of the population in Canada.
That’s why Science East and other STEM programs for children are important, says Thibodeau. The school trip gave Indigenous students access to play around and see what they can do with technology, such as learning about digital coding, or how a chair pulley system works, two of the activities that had the young kids lining up to try.
“It’s really important that we strive to get their literacy and numeracy rates up because there is lower levels in most First Nations so that’s our main focus,” said Thibodeau. “Sometimes science gets put to the side a little and its not as emphasized as it should be.”
Getting children interested in technology is a path to employment. According to the Information and Communications Technology Council’s 2017 report on Indigenous digital economy talent supply, the unemployment rate for Indigenous ICT professionals in 2016 was 2.8 per cent, just slightly higher than the national rate of 2.6 per cent and significantly lower than the 12.3 per cent overall unemployment rate for Indigenous peoples in Canada. About 1.2 per cent of Indigenous people are employed in ICT, over two-thirds of which have either a university degree or college/CEGEP diploma.
Melissa Lunney is an Indigenous app developer and founder of Appdigenous, an accessibility app to allow people with mobility issues easier access to buildings and doors that was inspired after she watched a wheelchair-bound woman struggle with a disability door.
She followed through on her idea via a couple of programs offered through the Joint Economic Development Initiative (JEDI), a New Brunswick non-profit that supports Indigenous economic development activities. She participated in a mobile app development course and the Aboriginal Business Accelerator Program. Before Lunney started the mobile app course she didn’t feel smart enough for app development. Now she sees herself as a problem-solver and she credits the JEDI program with teaching her how to learn.
She said it’s an exciting time to get Indigenous people involved in STEM because Indigenous ways of thinking and technology can start to intersect. “I think it’s a different eye, it’s another perspective so we have got our own way of thinking and learning and teaching and this is another way to do that like through coding,” said Lunney.
Her advice for anyone hoping to get into STEM fields is to just do it, because she knows one can surprise themselves. As for her she’s continuing new ways to help make buildings in Fredericton more accessible through her research and app development.
Lunney says gaining STEM expertise will enable Indigenous people to better solve problems in their communities. “Every community faces their own challenges and there are ways to solve those challenges in innovative ways,” she says, adding she’s flooded with emails from local tech companies seeking Indigenous coders and developers to address their labour force shortages.
“Now that I know that, I’m in a world where I can make my own opportunities and I can do anything.”