Enrichment bridges high school/university gap
By Colleen MacPherson
The eagerness shown by faculty, staff and students in the University’s new Mathematics and Science Enrichment Program (MSEP) for Aboriginal students bodes well not only for its students, but also for the University, according to the College of Arts and Science’s academic programming director for first-year transition programs.
Dave Cowan, who also teaches math in the program, said the reality is Aboriginal students are not participating in math and science at the same levels as they do in other subjects – but on the positive side, more people than ever are “interested in tackling this problem. From a University-wide perspective, we think this is important enough to deal with, and that’s a good sign.”
For many Aboriginal students from rural or northern communities, “their math experience is mixed. Their weakness may be, for example, that things are missing (from their high school instruction) and consequently, math can be a barrier for students wanting to get into professional colleges or science programs. There are a number who know they want to study science or enter the health sciences, some heading for medicine, nursing, pharmacy. They have those dreams so this seems like a good place to focus our attention at the University.”
The program is offered to first-year students enrolled in Arts and Science or Open Studies. Students must meet all admission requirements for the classes that, this year, include biology, math, chemistry and English. Fall registration saw 20-25 students sign up for biology, almost 20 in both math and chemistry, and a full class of 40 in English.
Cowan said the math course has a couple of unique features. First, it is a three-credit class taught over the full year, which allows for extensive review. It is a format Cowan believes would benefit many first-year students, but the drawback is committing six credits worth of time for just three credits.
“If the student is on loans or funded by their band, this can create real problems” when the expectation of a full class load is not met. Program administrators then work through the college, through the registrar’s office in Student and Enrolment Services Division and even with bands directly to make the necessary arrangements, he said.
The course has also accepted Aboriginal students late, to accommodate those who enrolled in regular math but found the class was “going too fast. This is the advantage of offering it over the whole year”.
But the program’s mandate goes beyond academics, to helping students define their educational and career goals. “Just like any cross-section of students coming into university, some know what they want to do and some are looking for what suits,” said Cowan. “Part of our mandate is to help them realize what’s available” by setting up information sessions with people from key areas of science as well as from the province’s Crown corporations. Cowan pointed out CIC has been up-front about the fact part of its motivation in funding the achievement program is to encourage students in fields that will meet its future staffing needs.
He said the need for professional staff to replace those approaching retirement is also an issue in industries like mining, “so we have to try and spark some interest because these are good jobs”. The program also includes up to 10 summer internships with working scientists.
And beyond academics and career counselling, sessions on indigenous knowledge and practices as well as contact with elders are on the schedule for MSEP students. “Part of the reason the program is here is to ease the transition into what can be called an alien environment. There are people in the program who understand the challenges, and understand what kinds of things may arise for students over the term. Things are changing at the University but it still must be very difficult for a kid to come from a small community. They might feel like a complete stranger at ‘their’ University.”
For Cowan, success in the math and science program, and in other transition undertakings, will grow as long as the University “continues to work with Aboriginal students, continues to listen and watch, and thoughtfully reflect on what we’re doing.”