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Dr. Darlee Gerrard and Ethan Boyer co-lead the Indigenous Design & Engineering Academy (IDEA). (Photo: Safa Jinje)

The Indigenous Design & Engineering Academy (IDEA), an enrichment program created through the U of T Engineering Outreach Office, is returning for its second year this summer. 

IDEA offers Land-based learning to inspire Indigenous secondary students to pursue an engineering education and career. The program reinforces the many ways scientific knowledge is ingrained in Indigenous culture and traditions. 

“The motivation behind the creation of IDEA was similar to many of our other Engineering Outreach programs,” says Dr. Darlee Gerrard, who co-leads IDEA with Ethan Boyer. “We want to engage audiences that find themselves underrepresented and underserved in STEM fields, especially engineering.”   

“We are aware of and recognize that Indigenous knowledge and perspectives — as well as the people and communities — are often left out of these conversations and left out of this content,” says Boyer. “We want to engage youth participants in a way that prioritizes their knowledge, traditions and experiences.”  

IDEA provides a suite of programming for Indigenous students of all ages. The program’s first offering is Leader-in-Training (LIT), a program for secondary school students, which will be held in two sessions this summer — July 5–8 and August 2–5, 2022.   

IDEA will also introduce a new program this summer called Horizons for students in Grades 3 to 6 — registration will open in July.  

LIT is an Indigenous-led experience for Indigenous students that focuses on the connection between traditional Land-based knowledge systems and STEM through workshops, presentations and hands-on activities that prepare participants for future leadership opportunities working with children and youth.  

I am a citizen of the Métis Nation of Ontario, and for a long time, I’ve wanted my identity to be part of the programs that I have been coordinating,” says Gerrard, who this past March received her PhD in Engineering Education, a collaborative specialization offered jointly by the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) and U of T Engineering.  

“I have a very deep personal connection to the content and our participants.”  

More than 20 students participated in the first iteration of LIT, which was held virtually as result of pandemic restrictions in the summer of 2021.  

I loved the experience because of how relevant it was to me as an Ojibwe youth,” says Mya Simpson, 18, a past participant.  

“We had the opportunity to hear from so many knowledge keepers and STEM professionals, and we talked a lot about how we, as Indigenous people, are scientists — and have been scientists for long before colonization tried to tell us otherwise.”  

One project that students worked on was creating a STEM activity for youth that could be implemented in future camps and outreach events. Simpson and her partner used their cultural knowledge of beading to design an activity that teaches individuals to loom-bead keychains, using different colours to signify the different layers of the earth.  

An illustration is next to a photo of a cardboard loom
Mya Simpson’s sketch of the Earth’s layers, left, is seen next to the cardboard loom she and her partner created for the beading project. (Photo: Mya Simpson)

 The lessons the students learned through conversations with traditional knowledge keepers were especially impactful, says Nodin Outten-Joseph, 16, who is of Lnu and Mohawk ancestry. 

“I’ve always strongly identified with my Indigenous roots and the LIT program very much delivered on the integration of diverse Indigenous ideologies — including my people’s — into various aspects of the program,” he says. 

“The teaching of STEM and leadership resonated with me, but most importantly they brought incredibly wise Indigenous mentors to expand our understanding of the world through Indigenous mindsets.  

Outten-Joseph says one teaching that has stuck with him is that “there is no difference between ecology and economy.” 

“We can find critical traditional knowledge everywhere, but society is keeping us fixated on empty successes,” he says. “Success is just being able to take care of yourself and you need to keep in mind, less is more.”  

Students who complete the LIT program will be prepared to take on instructional roles at camps and workshops, and they will also have opportunities to take part in additional Indigenous leadership and training opportunities through the U of T Engineering Outreach Office and Actua, Canada’s largest STEM organization, which includes the Engineering Outreach Office as one of its network members.  

“With IDEA, our goal has always been to create something that not only has representation, but also creates a sense of strength, identity and community,” says Boyer, who is a citizen of the Métis Nation of Ontario.  

“Doug Dokis, the director of Actua’s National Indigenous Youth in STEM program, would often say to us that ‘You may not know what impact you’re having on a person, just know that you’re having one and understand that you won’t even see most of the impact of the work you’re doing.’”

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