From left: Bernie Petit is the education coordinator – Indigenous programs at the Canadian Light Source synchrotron (Photo courtesy of Bernie Petit/CLS). Kevin Sawatzky is the developmental mathematics proctor with USask’s Indigenous Student Achievement Pathways (ISAP) program. (Photo supplied by Kevin Sawatzky)

CLS employee blends traditional Indigenous knowledge with mainstream science after enrolling in USask’s STEM Accelerator courses

One of the most impactful learning experiences of Bernie Petit’s career took place at the University of Saskatchewan (USask) in 2020.

Petit, who works at the Canadian Light Source (CLS) synchrotron on campus, enrolled in 90-level courses offered through the Indigenous Student Achievement Pathways (ISAP) program in USask’s College of Arts and Science.

Petit’s aim was to enhance her skills in science and mathematics and to incorporate her learnings into her role as the education co-ordinator – Indigenous programs at the CLS. She registered in Chemistry 90, Physics 90 and ISAP’s co-curricular math lab in the 2020 Fall Term—all courses that are offered as part of ISAP’s STEM Accelerator certificate.

“I desperately needed all of those,” she said.

At the CLS, Petit—who holds degrees in social work and psychology from the University of Manitoba—weaves her extended family’s traditional Anishinaabe and Cree knowledge, and her own experiences as a former health director and director of operations for First Nations organizations, into unique science research projects and teacher resources for First Nations, Métis and Inuit learners. She does this through the Bison Project and various hands-on activities, such as learning about the science of making bannock. Through her role at the CLS, she is also working to increase Indigenous representation in STEM (science, technology, mathematics and engineering).

Petit believed brushing up on mainstream science and mathematics methodologies would be useful in her work at the CLS, and she sought out USask’s STEM Accelerator courses as a result. Like other students in the courses, she found the learning environment to be supportive.

“It was actually part of my professional development, because I work at the Canadian Light Source and don’t have a science background at all,” she said. “My focus is on traditional knowledge—so I have an Indigenous science background, but I didn’t have a mainstream science education.”

ISAP’s non-degree credit preparatory courses are designed for students who want to pursue a degree in science, or a related professional degree, but who lack high school prerequisite courses. The STEM Accelerator courses are also beneficial for individuals who have been away from high school for more than three years and who want to refresh their knowledge of these subject areas.

Petit, a mother and grandmother, came to the STEM Accelerator courses as a mature learner. At the CLS, she creates land-based research projects that are available for students to use at the synchrotron—and the STEM Accelerator courses proved to be useful in that work.

“For me, it’s probably the most valuable professional development I’ve ever done,” she said. “I am working in Canada’s only synchrotron research facility. I am working in a position where I create resources—so for me, to be able to experience in real time the courses and what we were learning and interact with students, I could also create resources for those students in real time.”

Petit, who grew up in foster care, said she had a trauma-filled upbringing that impacted her interactions with the school system. She said her high school teachers assumed she wouldn’t go to university, so there weren’t a lot of “math and science champions” in her life as a youth.

“It was nice to work with the ISAP program, because essentially that’s what the ISAP program does,” she said. “They’re champions; they want their students to be successful.”

One of the champions Petit interacted with through the STEM Accelerator courses was Kevin Sawatzky, a retired high school teacher and coach who serves as the ISAP developmental mathematics proctor.

Dr. Sandy Bonny (PhD), team lead for ISAP and STEM access initiatives, calls Sawatzky a “superstar.” He previously served as an academic coach for Huskie student-athletes and now provides tutorial support for the ISAP sections of MATH 101, MATH 102 and STATS 244 at USask. He also provides co-curricular math labs for ISAP’s 90-level science courses and CHEM 112, since many students come to Chemistry 90 or Physics 90 with a math deficit due to not having access to pre-calculus in their high schools or because they are mature students who experienced skills erosion after years away from the disciplines.

“Kevin was a big help,” Petit said.

Sawatzky joined the ISAP program three years ago, after working as a high school math teacher for 31 years. He also worked as an independent consultant, following his retirement from Saskatoon Public Schools, liaising with the Treaty Six Education Council and the Yorkton Tribal Council.

Sawatzky said “it’s been really fun and quite rewarding” working with Bonny and the other members of the ISAP team. Engaging with ISAP students—many of whom are recent high school graduates—is a great part of his job.

“I’m enjoying the connection with the students and learning about their stories and trying to support them as best I can—mathematically and whatever else they might need,” he said.

Sawatzky said it was particularly fascinating to work with Petit, noting she enrolled in the STEM Accelerator courses for reasons that were different from many of his other students. Petit wasn’t focused on moving on to a degree program, but rather she wanted to learn more about mainstream science and math to assist in her role at the CLS.

“Her goals were a little bit different—a fascinating story,” said Sawatzky.
The beaded math medallion created by Bernie Petit features standard units of measurement on one side and an equation for converting between the units on the other. (Photos supplied by Bernie Petit)

In addition to enhancing her science and math skills, the STEM Accelerator courses also provided a boost to a very meaningful personal project for Petit. Petit’s mother passed away in December 2020 while Petit was finishing up her courses. After the wake, Petit’s aunties gifted her with her mother’s beading supplies. They also taught her their family’s beading tradition, so Petit’s first project following her mother’s death was to create a beaded math medallion inspired by her learnings in the ISAP classes.

“It was a healing project,” she said.

Petit now uses the beaded math medallion in her work at the CLS. The medallion is both beautiful and practical; one side of the math medallion features standard units of measurement, while the other side showcases an equation used for converting between units. Petit said the mathematical information is now permanently etched into her mind after beading it, and she was pleased to find a way to incorporate what she learned in her STEM Accelerator courses, with traditional Indigenous ways of knowing.

“When we learn, we typically learn oral tradition within our families. We have an amazing system of educating each other and we use our artwork, our traditional cultural expressions,” she said. “These are visual cues for us to tell stories.”

Sawatzky said that while he assists students in learning about math, he also learns new things from his students. He believes that anyone can learn math, even if students feel intimidated by it; they just need to find the right “connecting point” to the subject. He said Petit, and her math medallion, are inspiring examples of this, and she has shown that there is more than one way to look at the mathematical ideas he teaches.

“She sees math differently, so it’s very interesting how she developed that to make the connection for her, visually, to the mathematics,” Sawatzky said.

Petit has since turned her own experience of creating the math medallion into a way to help others connect with math. She utilizes the math medallion in a professional development opportunity for educators, which also features beading kits and a lesson plan.

“It was my very first beading project, and I had to rip it apart about three times until I got it right,” said Petit, who added that the medallion is still not perfect—but it doesn’t need to be.

“That’s what I tell teachers and students. It’s not about becoming a professional beader—and a lot of our students do already bead—it’s just more about when you put your heart and your brain together into something, it’s easier to remember.”

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