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Indigenous access to engineering programs providing knowledge, opportunities

2018.06.14

For long-standing and complex reasons, Indigenous students currently represent only one per cent of undergraduate engineering students in Canada. In recognition of National Indigenous Peoples Day on June 21, 2018, Engineers Canada spoke with the directors of Canada’s two Indigenous access to engineering programs, who are working to address this underrepresentation.

 

Melanie Howard is Director of Outreach and Aboriginal Access at Queen’s University’s Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science.

In your words, what is an Indigenous access program? What do they look like from a student perspective?

Queen’s takes a very broad approach to the term access, in that awareness is at the foundation of a lot of our work. Our outreach programs work with very young students, to build an awareness of the engineering profession and what engineers do. If students don’t understand what type of work a profession engages in, how can they ever be expected to want to aspire towards that profession?

From an undergraduate student perspective, an access program should allow for opportunity— opportunity to be considered for the program by alternate modes of admission, be that something like Queen’s Aboriginal Admissions Policy or a broader transitional access program like ENGAP at the University of Manitoba. Access programs, in working with undergraduate students, should facilitate access to the profession by providing professional development opportunities, access to scholarships, and opportunities to liaise with industry partners committed to workplace diversification.

Why are Indigenous access programs important to engineering departments and the profession?

Access programs create pathways into the profession for traditionally underrepresented populations. If we truly want to diversify the profession, then consideration needs to be given to the ways in which students engage with it—beginning before post-secondary, through undergraduate training, and into the professional domain.

What are some of the successes you’ve seen as a result of the programs? How many students have graduated?

Queen’s does not specifically recruit Indigenous students to engineering—our students come from all over the country, so finding them would be like searching for needles in the proverbial haystack. Just having the Aboriginal Access to Engineering program, however, has led to a 1000% increase in Indigenous undergraduate enrolment since the inception of the initiative—from four undergraduates in 2011-2012 to over 40 students projected in 2018-19. This is a testament to the fact that students want to study where they will feel supported. Since 2012, 23 Indigenous students have graduated from Queen’s University’s Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science.

What would the loss be if this program didn’t exist here?

One significant loss would be the outreach component of the program—we consider the work we are doing with elementary school students as raising the profile of engineering as a profession and STEM more generally in Indigenous communities. Not every child we work with will become an engineer, but they certainly will have a better understanding of what engineers do and how applying design thinking can help to solve problems.

What do you see as the long-term benefit of programs like this?

Long-term, we are developing a network of Indigenous professionals in engineering and applied science. These students may go on to leadership positions in business, within their communities, or within the broader Canadian context. Our programs all encourage students to get to know other Indigenous engineering students—this is why the development of the Canadian region of AISES (the American Indian Science and Engineering Society) has been a passion project for so many of us involved in supporting Indigenous engineering students. Overall, it also increases Indigenous participation in issues of land and resource management, with trained and qualified professionals who have the interests of their communities in mind when it comes to engineering practice.

 

Randy Herrmann, P.Eng., is the Director of the Engineering Access Program (ENGAP) at the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Engineering. He is also a member of the Engineers Canada Equitable Participation in Engineering Committee.

In your words, what is an Indigenous access program? What do they look like from a student perspective?

An Indigenous access program is one that supports Indigenous students in post-secondary education. I believe that access programs should offer supports in four main areas: social, personal, academic, and financial. An access program should also offer some form of academic bridging program between the secondary school environment and post-secondary. From a student perspective, the access program would help the student to overcome the barriers they face in entering a post-secondary institution.

Why are Indigenous access programs important to engineering departments and the profession?

The Indigenous community in Canada is growing faster than any other community of people, and yet this is not represented in a growing number of Indigenous graduates from engineering programs. They remain underrepresented. There are significant social, cultural, economic, and geographical barriers to Indigenous participation in STEM educational areas, and yet many dollars are spent on engineering works on or near Indigenous communities. In addition, the profession needs to become more diversified if we are going to solve the problems facing the world today. We need more female voices, Indigenous voices, and visible minority voices to have a strong profession.

What are some of the successes you’ve seen as a result of the programs? How many students have graduated?

ENGAP has graduated 125 students to date. So far we have had several students that have won the program award for the highest grade point average in their programs (one in mechanical, two in electrical, one in biosystems) and last year one of our students won the Governor General’s silver medal for highest GPA of all students graduating from the University of Manitoba. Many of our past graduates have returned to their communities to become counsellors or Chiefs.

What would the loss be if this program didn’t exist here?

If ENGAP did not exist there would be a sudden drop in Indigenous enrollment in engineering at the University of Manitoba. Enrollment would likely drop by over 50%. Many of our graduates would not have engineering degrees if it was not for ENGAP and our upgrading program. Many of our non-graduates would not have the opportunities they have had or the jobs they have had without the knowledge gained from being in ENGAP.

What do you see as the long-term benefit of programs like this?

These programs help address the effects of the Residential School system and colonization. Many of our students have not had a very productive or positive high school experience because of the above noted situations. We are able to take these students, when they are ready to re-enter the educational system, and give them a positive and productive educational experience. Even those students that do not graduate recognize that they are far better off after they leave ENGAP than they were before they entered.

 

Engineers Canada, working with its Indigenous Peoples’ Participation in Engineering working group, has been working to understand the facets necessary for increasing Indigenous peoples’ access to engineering. For more information on the important of access programs, please read Engineers Canada’s report, ‘Indigenous Peoples’ Access to Post-Secondary Engineering Programs: A Review of Practice Consensus.’