Program gives Aboriginal secondary students up-close look at university science studies

Susan Silvey and Keden Cole at UBC

May 26, 2017 – Imagine the excitement of being a grade 11 student from a small community immersed in a major Canadian university environment doing actual science lab research for one week. This is exactly what Keden Cole and Susan Silvey got to do from May 15 to 19 at the University of British Columbia.

These two grade 11 students from Brooks Secondary School in Powell River spent a week at UBC doing hands-on science research as part of the Verna J. Kirkness Science and Engineering Program, an initiative that aims to increase the number of Aboriginal students graduating from science and engineering programs in Canada.

As scholarship recipients of the program, these two Tla’amin Nation students joined with 27 other First Nation and Métis students from across BC, Alberta and Manitoba to participate in this inspiring, once-in-a lifetime educational opportunity.

In addition to doing actual research taught by University faculty, the students had the opportunity to stay in student residences on UBC’s Vancouver campus. Here, they took in many of its interesting Indigenous art pieces, as well as the general beauty of the campus, which UBC now recognizes as being “located on the traditional, ancestral and unceded territory of the Musqueam people.”

Through their experience, they both came to realize that university is not a foreign environment, but rather an extension of their high-school learning, and is a place where they can feel a sense of belonging and support.

After spending time in the Michael Smith Laboratories, Keden, age 16, discovered he is interested in learning about plants. “I couldn’t believe that we had three mentors for two students! All the mentors were so passionate about their research and passed on their enthusiasm to their students,” he said.

Judy Booth, a doctoral candidate who works in the Bohlmann Lab, which is part of the Michael Smith Laboratories, got involved with the program because she likes sharing her passion for research. “I hope to inspire Keden to pursue his interest in science,” she said.

During the week, her student group, which included Keden, focused on natural products and forestry. They got to choose a plant they liked and prepare it for high-resolution microscopy to see it at the cellular level. They learned about the scientific process and how plants work, including that “all it takes to be a scientist is curiosity and persistence,” explained Judy.

Susan Silvey spent her week in a forestry lab studying tree rings from different species of trees. She learned how to determine the life span of trees, how to analyze tree rings for environmental damage and how to prevent trees from becoming extinct.

“After spending a week at UBC, I now realize that university can offer a student many differ options and areas of study. I am very excited to be able to choose classes that interest me when I go to university,” Susan said.

Linc Kesler, director of the First Nations House of Learning at UBC, commented that the University is working hard to develop great programs and courses in Indigenous studies, community planning, law, education, and many others for Indigenous students.

But he explained that none of that would matter if students after finishing high school do not know about them or about other possibilities at the post-secondary level.

“The Verna J. Kirkness Science and Engineering Program gives students from different Indigenous communities the chance to come to UBC and other universities to experience these possibilities first hand. We are so fortunate to have them here and share some time with them. It is always such an honor to have them on our campus,” Linc said.

In addition to its aim to increase the number of Aboriginal students graduating from science and engineering programs, the Verna J. Kirkness Science and Engineering Program also encourages high school student interest in post-secondary study generally, including having participants make a positive difference in their home community.

Gerry Brach, MEd (UBC ’90), Aboriginal Counsellor/First Nation Leadership Coordinator at Brooks Secondary School, in Powell River, is a director with the Verna J. Kirkness Science and Engineering Program.


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