Lana Elias, director of science outreach in the College of Arts and Science.

The science behind classroom engagement

PotashCorp Kamskénow, an award-winning U of S outreach program that brings engaging science and math education to community schools in Saskatoon, has just received renewed funding through PromoScience, a program of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

"NSERC funds are fabulous because we certainly have the demand, and to have the three-year funding, that's just a dream," said Lana Elias, director of science outreach with the College of Arts and Science at the University of Saskatchewan. "It allows us to do some forward planning which is such a blessing."

The program, which started with only one classroom in 2009, just finished its seventh year. It is also supported through a number of organizations including its title sponsor, PotashCorp.

The name of the program, Kamskénow (gum-SKAY-noh), which means "to find, to learn, together" in the Cree language, was bestowed by Elder Katie Poundmaker.

Last year, Kamskénow put science outreach instructors into 42 classrooms at 14 schools in the Saskatoon area, for 90 minutes once a week for 13 weeks. The program culminates with the students visiting the U of S campus for further activities in actual classrooms and labs.

"Howler came to give high-fives to the kids as they came off the bus," Elias said, describing the welcome to campus by the U of S Huskies mascot.

Elias explained that Kamskénow also creates opportunity for U of S students to share knowledge and serve as role models of people pursuing careers in natural sciences, education, engineering and health sciences. Last year, the outreach team employed two undergraduate and 11 graduate students, including one Aboriginal student.

Kamskénow's goal is to get more Aboriginal children interested in science, and according to the stats, it is succeeding. When surveyed at the program's end, students nearly unanimously gave it a good or very good rating, and most reported they liked science more.

"I think the most impressive thing is that after participating in the program 69 per cent of students said they are likely to choose a career that involves math or science," Elias said. "Another 24 per cent are undecided, which says to me that most of the students would now consider such a career."

Elias explained Kamskénow is offered in partnership with Saskatoon Public Schools and Greater Saskatoon Catholic schools. The program is focused on designated community schools, which tend to have a high proportion of First Nations and Métis students.

"We want kids to discover science through fun and exciting hands-on activities presented in a culturally responsive way," Elias said. "We'll do dissection of owl pellets and the kids will determine what type of skulls they have and how many there are. But we will also bring in Aboriginal legends, for example, ‘how the owl got its big eyes.'"

Kamskénow offers six levels of programming, with about 100 different presentations comprising about 300 different activities.

"We've developed quite a lot of material," she said. "Someone that's in the Grade 4 program can do the Grade 5 program in the next year and not repeat anything."

Kamskénow's popularity is such that it would have to more than double in size to meet demand. Elias said about 60 teachers were on the waiting list to have their classrooms participate this year. Its quality has also been recognized internationally, with two Global Best Awards in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) category through the International Education Business Partnership Network, affiliated with the Conference Board of Canada.
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