June 5, 2020

Mentorship pipeline connects students together to explore STEM pathways

Sucker Creek First Nation students will learn foundational skills to evaluate drinking water safety in their community

Indigenous communities fall outside of provincial water governance and are fully responsible for managing water resources under their own jurisdiction. In northern Alberta, surface water resources are abundant, but the Sucker Creek First Nation (SCFN) is adversely affected by poor drinking water quality.

There is a strong desire to be self-reliant, and professionals with training in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are urgently needed to not only address the water quality issues, but also to empower the community with post-secondary opportunities for local youth.

Thanks to becoming successful recipients of the NSERC PromoScience Program grant, a small team of researchers from the University of Calgary is collaborating with council members and educators from the SCFN to deliver foundational  knowledge, training, and hands-on experience in STEM disciplines to help solve a water quality problem in the community.

  • Photo above: In 2019, Sucker Creek First Nation students record measurements taken from water samples. Photo courtesy Celia Kennedy

The SCFN community is located in a region where unconventional resource extraction is a key industry. Indigenous high-school and undergraduate students participating in this program will have the opportunity to see the applicability and relevance of STEM education pathways in their lives, while building relationships with trained graduate students and researchers who can help them navigate the post-secondary application process.

The goal of this pilot project is to build on existing relationships with the SCFN, as well as the Indian Resource Council (IRC), through a mentorship pipeline that can be applied in other remote communities across Alberta.

Sucker Creek First Nation Students participating in the REDEVELOP program.

Sucker Creek First Nation students participate in the REDEVELOP program in 2019.

Principal investigator Dr. David Eaton, PhD, is eager to build on an already established NSERC CREATE (Collaborative Research and Training Experience Program) called REDEVELOP. “Our REDEVELOP program is building a mentorship pipeline that will allow us to deliver a consistent educational and scientific partnership with key First Nations,” says Eaton.

“The PromoScience grant will allow us to expand our breadth of reach and impact, training more students and educators in these communities.”

Together, in a good way

In 2017, the University of Calgary launched its Indigenous Strategy and its cultural model ii' taa'poh'to'p, which means "together, in a good way.” Graduate students of REDEVELOP learn the depth and relevance of this model as part of their training, and will apply this approach to mentorship in the field and on campus.

“We are fortunate to have the support of Chief Jim Badger (SCFN) and Director Steven Saddleback (IRC), as we work to integrate western and traditional approaches to science, stewardship and problem-solving,” says project co-ordinator, Dr. Celia Kennedy, PhD, who notes this support is essential to the success of these initiatives. The UCalgary research team is hoping the outcomes of this pilot project will lead to additional initiatives, expanding the program to more communities.

“Delivering graduate-level scientific knowledge to empower the chief and council of the SCFN with informed decision-making by better understanding the regional hydrogeologic system, identifying potential contaminants and contaminant sources, and exploring possible remedial solutions is our short-term goal,” says Kennedy, a contaminant hydrogeologist.

When you empower a community with knowledge security, sustainable water management and STEM education, then today's Indigenous youth who become tomorrow's leaders will also be self-reliant professionals.

“The aim of this program is to provide students with long-term knowledge security, and techniques for sustainable water management, through STEM education,” says Eaton. “Our hope is that the impact of this program will benefit generations to come.”

Water Quality and Unconventional Resource Development is expected to kick off this summer.