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Let’s Talk Science and the Royal Society of Canada have partnered to provide Globe and Mail readers with relevant coverage about issues that affect us all – from education to the impact of leading-edge scientific discoveries.

Erin Kelly is an Education Specialist for Professional Learning with Let’s Talk Science and is from Bkejwanong Territory, Walpole Island First Nation.

Back to school time in September can bring feelings of excitement for some, but for others it can be a time filled with difficult emotions. For Residential School survivors and their families, it can be a painful reminder of the time of year when they and so many other children were taken from their homes and sent to “schools” where far too many suffered unimaginable abuse and were stripped of connection to their families, communities, language and culture. More people are coming to understand the serious negative impacts of the Residential School System as survivors’ voices are being heard. Former student, Phyllis Webstad, inspired the Orange Shirt Day movement when she shared how her own shiny new orange shirt had been taken away on her first day at residential school. She told her story during a commemoration project and reunion for St. Joseph Mission Residential School in 2013, and soon after, September 30th became widely known as a day to raise awareness and start important conversations about Residential Schools. It became a day to remember that every child matters.

When my daughter goes to school on Orange Shirt Day, her connection to her own orange shirt might be a little different than most of her classmates. My daughter, like me, is the descendant of a Residential School Survivor. But unlike me, my daughter is growing up in a world where we have a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. I often wonder what the school experience will be like for her. Will her teachers have what they need to engage in the conversations in a good way? Will she be met with compassion from her peers and their families? What other opportunities will they have to engage with Indigenous families and communities? What impact will this day have on how reconciliation and Indigenous perspectives are treated for the rest of the year? Looking for answers to these questions is actually where my personal life and my career intersect. For my family, and so many others, understanding and overcoming the intergenerational trauma inflicted by Residential Schools is ongoing. I have dedicated my career to advocating for change. Perhaps unexpectedly, science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education has provided me with a positive outlet where I can advance reconciliation in meaningful ways as a trained science teacher.

Why STEM? Scientific literacy and innovation are key to addressing critical issues in many Indigenous communities such as health, the impacts of climate change, and food insecurity. However, too many young people are withdrawing from STEM in school - especially young Indigenous people. I’ve always been drawn to the sciences, but being Indigenous and a scientist often felt like living in two different worlds. It wasn’t until I met other people like me and was introduced to concepts like Two Eyed Seeing that I started to grasp the potential for connecting these two worlds. Now I believe that it is essential we connect these ways of knowing and increase participation in both.

Part of reconciliation in STEM education requires increasing Indigenous representation in STEM. This can happen at many different levels and in many different ways, from including a reference from an Indigenous scientist in a lesson to hiring more Indigenous science teachers. Through this journey, I’ve learned far more than I could have ever imagined. It is becoming more apparent that while increasing Indigenous representation in STEM can be instrumental for Indigenous people themselves, it is critical for the rest of society as well. For too long, the dominant society has placed a greater emphasis on Western science, while viewing Indigenous Knowledge as less valuable.

Reconciliation in STEM education also requires validating oral histories and acknowledging Indigenous contributions to science. It involves considering Indigenous perspectives alongside mainstream or western schools of thought, acknowledging that Indigenous knowledge can provide a more wholesome understanding about issues in STEM. Indigenous peoples have thousands of years of experience observing and adapting to their surroundings, and developing complex knowledge systems. During that time, an incredible amount of knowledge became embedded within Indigenous languages that was passed down as stories. The names of places, plants and animals contain hints and descriptions of what they are, how they can be used, and how people can relate to and care for them.

Increasingly, scientists are recognizing that Indigenous knowledge and languages, the very things that Residential Schools attempted to extinguish, can help to address some of humanity’s most pressing issues. Both Indigenous ways of knowing and western science were constructed by people to understand the world. And both rely on observation and communication. Perhaps, seeking to find shared values and commonalities will help us align different perspectives to understand the world better.

This September 30th, on the inaugural National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, I invite you to approach the day with an open mind and an open heart. Find the commonalities and celebrate the differences as we all seek to make sense of our world. There are thousands of families, like mine, who are grappling with the ongoing effects of Residential Schools and who are seeking their own positive way forward. Please consider how your actions on this day, and every day, can provide support to ensure that children like my daughter grow up in a world where they realize that they matter and that they can become anything they want to become - including a scientist or engineer!

For more information about reconciliation and ways to promote an inclusive and respectful classroom experience, please visit the following resources.

What is Reconciliation?

Orange Shirt Day Resources

Indigenous People in STEM

Lesson: Indigenous Career Stories

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