Science ambassadors engage in two-way learning with Indigenous community schools

By in News

University of Saskatchewan students will have the chance to use their science skills in Indigenous community schools across northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba this spring with the Science Ambassador Program. The SAP is an opportunity for both students and host communities to engage in two-way learning.

The SAP program partners with elementary schools and high schools to provide them with science-based learning activities for students, while the science ambassadors gain experience by facilitating the programming and learning from their host communities.

Victoria Harms, the science outreach co-ordinator for the SAP, organizes the logistics of the program and will be training new science ambassadors in the upcoming months.

“They’ll do a little bit of training where they’ll learn how to best design hands-on activities that are engaging, that get kids discovering, asking questions [and] finding out how things work on their own, rather than being instructed explicitly on what’s going to happen,” Harms said.

The student-ambassador positions are open to graduate students or undergraduates in the upper years of their program. These four-to-six-week paid positions allow budding scientists to visit communities, so that they can develop their communication and leadership skills through teaching.

Jordan Mihalicz, a former science ambassador and a master’s candidate in the School of Environment and Sustainability at the U of S, explains that science ambassadors often have the opportunity to learn from their host community and participate in cultural activities, such as a culture camp.

“We got to go to their culture camp, [and] we got to make a pair of mitts. We got to experience their Dene culture and eat a lot of caribou. It was amazing. It was really, really good,” Mihalicz said.

Harms explains that the science ambassadors are sent to the communities in pairs, toting supplies for educational programming that often reflects their own interests as U of S students.

“What’s really fun is, [in] most of the science ambassador pairings, we end up with two science ambassadors with very different backgrounds, and so, they get to take advantage of their strengths and can create activities that highlight what they particularly love about science. So, they can share their passion, which is infectious,” Harms said.

Harms discusses how two U of S students shared their interest in rockets in a hands-on activity with the children in Cumberland House, a community in northeast Saskatchewan.

“They did a NASA rocket­-building challenge, and they actually built a launcher, and so, they went out, and they had the PVC pipes and the rubber saddle, … and they were launching rockets, which was truly impressive,” Harms said. “The kids had a blast with that.”

Harms notes that she matches students, in part, based on whether or not the community has interests in a specific area. For example, when Mihalicz was stationed in Stony Rapids, he used his master’s research on aquatic insects to lead an activity with the school group. The group went to the local waterways, where they used nets to catch insects for identification.

The program typically employs biology, chemistry and engineering students, who often go on to work in those fields, but Harms notes that science ambassadors may go on to pursue a career path in teaching instead.

Mihalicz explains that teaching the students was rewarding, and he recommends other university students participate in the SAP.

“If you do go up there, the kids are going to love you, and you will have an incredible experience through and through,” Mihalicz said.

Mihalicz discusses how, as a science ambassador, he felt welcomed by his host community, even though he was unaccustomed to living in a remote location like the one he was placed in.

“It takes a bit of getting used to, but the people there are so incredibly friendly, too. Once you get to know them, it becomes a second home,” Mihalicz said. “If anyone is interested, I’d highly recommend at least checking it out. Take the plunge — it’s more than worth it.”

Gwen Roy

Graphic: Lesia Karalash / Graphics Editor