Student-run program brings science education to Indigenous communities

By Sébastien Belliveau

Run by graduate students in McGill University’s Integrated Program in Neuroscience (IPN), BrainReach North is a science education outreach program for remote indigenous communities in Quebec, which completed two outreach trips in May, one fly-in visit to the Inuit community of Kuujjuarapik and one road trip to visit schools in the Cree communities of Mistissini and Waswanipi.

The primary goal of the initiative is to put a friendly face on brain science, providing students in the communities with an opportunity to ask questions about the brain or mental illness, while simultaneously providing graduate student volunteers with the opportunity to develop skills communicating science to the public.  On each trip volunteers led hands-on brain-based science lessons for elementary and secondary students. Highlights included bringing a cow brain into the class and an electrophysiology setup that let people make each other’s muscles twitch by moving their own.

Two of the graduate student volunteers, Sébastien Belliveau and Eviatar Fields have written about their experience. The following is Sébastien’s story.


It was a hot summer day when my path to Kuujjuarapik started, but my mind was already focused on the decidedly less pleasant weather of northern Quebec. As a new graduate student in McGill’s Integrated Program in Neuroscience (IPN), I had been browsing through my emails when something caught my eye: the BrainReach North (BRN) program.

Before starting graduate school, I worked for two months in the Cree First Nation of Waskaganish preparing high school students for their stressful ministerial science exams, where I was fortunate to not only have experienced the awesome wilderness that northern Quebec offers, but more importantly to have gotten to know the locals and be privy to a culture far different from my own. The experience was transformative beyond just the unkempt beard I came home with. Because of this, I jumped at the opportunity to volunteer for an organization promoting educational outreach for Indigenous people in remote settings.

BRN is an online-based science education outreach program that offers teaching materials, videos, and workshops for teachers and student in remote communities across Quebec. Over the following months I contributed to writing scripts and storyboards for BRN’s educational videos, and I provided narration for the Tailles du cerveau video, among others. I also drew on my previous work to facilitate a collaboration with another educational non-profit organization working in northern Quebec, Youth Fusion. Eventually, BRN put out a call for volunteers for outreach trips to the Inuit community of Kuujjuarapik and the Cree communities of Mistissini and Waswanipi, and I jumped at the opportunity to fly in to the former. My laboratory was generous enough to allow my absence for a few days, and so the trip was booked. In the hectic weeks leading up to the trip, I was put in contact with one of the Youth Fusion employees who has been living in the community since January, Annie Cameron, an acquaintance of mine from my time as a McGill undergrad.

When the time for the trip had arrived, I boarded a plane for the first time in eight years and went up on my (and BRN’s) first journey to Nunavik. I was greeted at the airport by the principal of the Asimauttaq School, Shaun McMahon, another former McGillian. Shaun generously provided me with accommodations during my stay, helped get me settled in and ready to teach, and was an excellent gym buddy and tour guide.

When I arrived at the school, all I had to do was assemble the teaching lessons and their accompanying hands-on materials and we were set.  BRN activities use the brain as a way to stimulate interest and curiosity in science. For two days, over the course of six classes per day I taught students ranging from grades 4 through 11, in both French and English. I started each class with a primer on what brains are made of. Students were fascinated to see slices of rat brains (borrowed from another BrainReach volunteer’s lab) under the microscope. Feedback ranged from how “icky” they are to clear amazement that these tiny stained dots and lines were responsible for all the incredible things the brain does every day. I also talked to students about how the brain regulates emotions and how people can try and cope with unpleasant emotions, all rooted in neuroscience but connecting directly to things they experience every day. Unsurprisingly however, the students’ favourite subject was almost always motor systems, probably due to the use of BRN’s electrophysiology kit, a human-to-human interface that allowed students to “remote control” my muscles by contracting their own. This action sends a current of electricity through wires to jolt my own muscles into action.

Some of the most fun parts of the talks I gave were the questions the students would ask, ranging from “do our brains have butts?”, to “why do we forget?” or “how do we dream?” With each question, I had the opportunity to help the students engage with the scientific method, thinking through their assumptions and how they could test their hypotheses to answer their own questions. (I admit I had trouble figuring an experiment to determine whether brains had butts.) These questions let me tailor my talks to the students’ interests to help them see how neuroscience can be approachable and engaging.

The teaching trip would have been impossible without the help of our Youth Fusion collaborator, Annie, the teachers at Asimauttaq, and Shaun. Everyone was welcoming, engaged, and very helpful. At the end of my last day in Kuujjuarapik, Shaun was kind enough to offer to take me for a drive around the community. I had the opportunity to stand on Hudson’s Bay, see Nunavut off in the distance, and see my first inuksuk in person. I also spotted some wild tarmigans by the edge of the road, and to my awe, a herd of caribou running across the road just a few feet in front of us.

I’m very grateful to the BrainReach organizers, including the program’s director Dr. Josephine Nalbantoglu, this year’s coordinator Kelly Smart, and the IPN, The Neuro, and McGill as a whole for supporting this endeavour. Although short, my trip to Kuujjuarapik gave me some insight and exposure to Inuit culture and the people of Nunavik. This trip has motivated me further to continue my involvement in educational outreach, and I hope to return to the North soon to keep learning.


Read Eviatar Fields’ Story | IPN students visit Quebec’s north – Mistissini and Waswanipi

*Photos courtesy of Sébastien Belliveau