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The Verna J. Kirkness Program at uOttawa - Part 1

The Kirkness scholars at the Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health.

From May 14th to May 18th, thirteen Indigenous high school students from the Verna J. Kirkness Science and Engineering Education Program came to the University of Ottawa to be mentored in a lab setting. These students, all of whom are girls, travelled from all over Canada to attend the program, including Norway House, MB, Rama, ON, Ottawa, ON, Waswanipi, QC, and Cape Dorset, NU.

 The Verna J. Kirkness Foundation was founded in 2009 and strives to “increase the number of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit students graduating from science and engineering programs in Canada.” When the program began in 2009, it was only held at the University of Manitoba, but this year, programs were held at six universities, with three universities – the University of Ottawa, the University of Calgary, and the First Nations University – participating for the first time.

The program is named after Verna J. Kirkness, a passionate advocate for Indigenous education, who is a member of the Fisher River Cree Nation. Verna began her professional life as an elementary school teacher, but throughout her long career, Verna has been a Principal, a Cross-Cultural Consultant for the Manitoba Department of Education, an Assistant Professor at UBC, where she was also the Head of the Native Indian Teacher Education Program (NITEP), and a published author. Her achievements and advocacy have been honoured with several awards, including the 1990 Canadian Educator of the Year Award, and the Order of Canada in 1998, as well as six honorary doctorates.

Although Verna was unable to make it to the Kirkness program at the University of Ottawa, she attends most of the Kirkness sessions and is a true inspiration to the students.

Dr. Catherine Mavriplis, as NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering for Ontario, strives to reach women and girls from all regions and all backgrounds. However, it can be challenging to reach both rural and Indigenous communities, which is why she decided to sponsor the Kirkness program so that it could expand to the Ottawa region. Dr. Annemieke Farenhorst, the NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering for the Prairie region, has been actively involved with the Kirkness foundation for several years at the University of Manitoba and spoke very highly of the experiences Indigenous students have had through the program.

When Dr. Mavriplis first sent out the request to professors for mentors at the University of Ottawa, the response was nothing short of enthusiastic: twenty professors volunteered immediately for the few spots needed to start the pilot program. Five professors were selected as mentors based on the student’s interests, and either two or three students were assigned to each lab. There was a great deal of diversity throughout the five labs, with some students counting flowers and bees in Gatineau Park, while others learned about solar cells and renewable energy. We look forward to sharing a more in-depth review of each lab in the next few weeks.

On the last evening of the uOttawa Kirkness program, a traditional feast was held at the Wabano Centre to honour the 13 girls who participated. These students are ambitious, intelligent, and driven students who are becoming inspiring role models to their peers and communities. We hope their experiences at the University of Ottawa demonstrated not only the advantages of a career in STEM, but also helped them to gain confidence in their academic abilities, and allowed them to prepare for post-secondary education, in whatever path they choose.

If you want to learn more about the Verna J. Kirkness Foundation, click here.

The Kirkness scholars as well as Noella Much (far left), Dr. Catherine Mavriplis (second from left), and Tony Williams, from the Kirkness Foundation (far right).

Through outreach and professional development activities, research, partnerships, thought leadership and online initiatives, we work with industry and academia to educate on the value of diversity for innovation, to inspire women to thrive and to celebrate the contributions of women in science and engineering.
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