Left to right, top row, Fidelia Anulika Orji and Jocelyn Peltier-Huntley (credit: David Stobbe), and bottom row, Gabrielle Iakotennikonhrare Doreen (credit: submitted) and Osiris González Romero. (credit: Boris González)

3 USask students named 2021 Vanier Scholars, one awarded international post-doctoral fellowship

University of Saskatchewan (USask) PhD students Fidelia Anulika Orji, Jocelyn Peltier-Huntley, and Gabrielle Iakotennikonhrare Doreen have been awarded the prestigious 2021 Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship. The annual award recognizes researchers who demonstrate academic excellence, research potential and leadership ability.

Additionally, Osiris González Romero, a recent PhD graduate from Mexico who completed his doctoral work in the Netherlands, has been awarded the Misiwêskamik International Post-doctoral Fellowship, a competitive program mandated to bring international post-doctoral fellows to USask.

“We are proud of these talented scholars, who represent our institution’s future of bold discovery and providing research the world needs,” said USask Vice-President Research Baljit Singh.

Orji is part of the team at USask’s Multi-User Adaptive Distributed Mobile and Ubiquitous Computing (MADMUC) Lab and is exploring ways to use machine learning to make personalized eLearning systems that keep users engaged while achieving the desired learning outcome. Orji works under the directorship of USask researcher Julita Vassileva.

Peltier-Huntley is part of the interdisciplinary studies program and is finding ways to change workplace culture in the mining industry to make it more inclusive for under-represented groups, such as women and Indigenous people. Jeanie Wills and John Moffat are co-supervising her project. 

Doreen, Turtle Clan from Tyendinaga Territory but currently living in Kahnawake, near Montreal, will study how Indigenous theories on living and self-governance can be incorporated into Indigenous-led, land-based education, and contribute to Indigenous research methodologies. USask education researcher Alex Wilson is her supervisor.    

Orji, Peltier-Huntley, and Doreen will each receive $150,000 over three years to support their work. 

Seeking accessible education

Education is a great equalizer, but not everyone has access to quality education. That’s something Orji wants to fix.

“Even those that cannot afford to go to school physically, they can learn through an eLearning system,” she said.

ELearning involves educational programs being delivered electronically. While this can address some barriers to accessing education, sticking with such a system can be challenging and the drop-out rate from eLearning programs is higher than from traditional learning platforms.

“In traditional classrooms, experienced teachers can easily figure out when students are not following along, or when they are distracted and adapt the teaching style to engage students, keep their interest, and help them understand a new concept,” Orji said. “This is not the same in eLearning environments.”

In eLearning, students have to direct themselves and most eLearning programs can’t adapt strategies to engage learners. That’s what Orji’s project aims to change.

She is building on advances in Machine Learning (ML), data analytics and ubiquitous computing to develop an ML-driven adaptive eLearning system that will assess learners’ engagement, motivation, and frustrations in real-time.

“If eLearning content is adapted to a learner’s needs and interest, it will capture the learner’s attention and keep the learner engaged. The learner will be more likely to use the system and will keep using the system and hence achieve the desired learning objectives,” Orji said. “If the system is not adaptive, if it cannot engage a learner for a long time, the learner is probably going to be distracted and eventually drop out.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, which forced schools around the world to transition to online learning, highlighted the need for good eLearning systems. And Orji said this need will continue as life returns to normal.

“Even if there is no COVID-19, there is this need for eLearning systems because many schools still use eLearning systems to support the traditional face-to-face system,” she said.

Orji’s system will be delivered via computers and cellphones and be accessible anywhere and anytime. She plans to eventually try the system among young adult students.

Tackling gender discrimination in mining

When Peltier-Huntley started her career as a mechanical engineer, she quickly noticed being the only woman professional engineer on a mine site and often the only woman in a meeting room.

Men didn’t always treat her the same as their male co-workers and, when she moved into leadership roles, she realized women were often paid less than their male counterparts and were often evaluated differently for their work.

“I knew I needed to help address this problem sitting before me,” Peltier-Huntley said.

Peltier-Huntley left her job as a professional mechanical engineer in 2017 after 13 years in the mining industry and started a master’s degree at USask that looked at the challenges involved in closing the gender gap in the Canadian mining industry. This involved conducting a nation-wide survey of men and women with ties to mining.

Even though companies were pledging to increase the number of women in their workforce, this often wasn’t happening in practice and turnover rates of women workers was high, Peltier-Huntley found. In addition, instances of workplace discrimination and harassment were underreported and not being handled well.

“If there was a health and safety issue where there was a risk of somebody getting hurt, usually the work would shut down until the problem was solved. That just doesn't seem to be the case with discrimination and harassment issues,” Peltier-Huntley said.

Peltier-Huntley is now building on her findings in her PhD. She will interview people in the mining industry who are championing inclusion in the workplace and then implement their recommendations with engineering students at USask and a mine site in Saskatchewan.

“Helping people develop the skills and tools they need so they can be supporters—that’s one thing that I really want to see come out of my PhD work,” Peltier-Huntley said. “Because if we only rely on people who are in underrepresented groups to fix the culture, we’re going to be waiting a long time to see change.”

Investigating land-based education in Indigenous language immersion schools

Before becoming a lecturer in Indigenous Studies at McGill University, Doreen worked as teacher at a private, primary Indigenous-language immersion school. 

When she encountered behavior issues and lack of confidence in her students, Doreen decided to incorporate the teachings of the Two-Row Wampum theory, or Kaswentha—an agreement of mutual respect and peaceful coexistence between Haudenosaunee and the first European settlers — into her practice.

I just noticed almost immediately a kind of turnaround in the kids,” Doreen said. “I thought, wow, this really works, even though this wasn’t initially meant for the purposes of education, we can use these Wampum theories to guide and govern us.”

“Philosophical knowledge held in Wampum or Onekò:rha in Kanien’ké:ha (Mohawk language) was given to the Haudenosaunee people to direct our relationships between ourselves as Haudenosaunee people, with the land, and with settlers,” said Doreen.

Some of the more well-known theories are physically represented in the form of Wampum belts—patterned belts made of beads from Quahog clam and whelk shells, imbued with significant meaning, and used as picturesque diagrams to enshrine principles, commitments, and agreements.

When Doreen saw her students behaving in a way that followed the ideas in the Kaswentha or Two-Row Wampum—peace, strength in unity, and a good mind—she would reward and encourage them.

“I made a really big deal of it,” said Doreen. “You catch them doing something good, and then they really want to do ‘good.’”

She intends to study existing literature on Wampum, as well as interviewing living community members on what they remember.

”I want to understand these belts better, and understand how schools are using these belts in their own governance and teaching practices,” said Doreen.

Doreen’s overall goal: through education policy, bind Indigenous language immersion, land-based schools together through peace and a good mind to increase their shared strength.

Cognitive freedom and psychedelic humanities

Romero recently finished his doctoral work at Leiden University in Leiden, Netherlands, on the heritage of Indigenous Peoples--his dissertation, "Tlamatiliztli: the wisdom of the Nahua people. Intercultural Philosophy and Right to Land," has been published as a book.

Romero is joining USask for his post-doctoral studies thanks to a new award to recruit international students. The post-doctoral fellowship, funded through USask’s International Blueprint for Action, includes at least $88,000 in funding over two years, provided jointly by USask’s College of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies and the fellow’s supervisor.

At USask, Romero will be supervised by historian Dr. Erika Dyck, Canada Research Chair in the History of Medicine, pursuing research titled “Cognitive freedom and psychedelic humanities.”