FMHS profs and grad students joined Branches –  McGill’s Community Outreach Program – for a week delivering STEM workshops in the Cree Nation of Chisasibi

For over a year, Branches, McGill’s community outreach team in Enrolment Services, has strived to build an ongoing partnership with the Cree Nation of Chisasibi. During this time, Branches has organized two workshops in Chisasibi – located on the eastern shore of James Bay, in Eeyou Istchee in northern Quebec – and visits from Cree community members to McGill’s campus. 

This past March, Branches members, alongside McGill faculty and students in biochemistry, neuroscience, computer science and astrophysics, travelled to Chisasibi for the latest iteration of Outbound Explore. The focus was clear: to provide high school students with fun and approachable resources to support them on their educational path. 

Outbound Explore brings the McGill experience to communities outside Montreal, providing students with access to workshops facilitated by different McGill faculties. The hands-on workshops give students insight into applied sciences, educational resources, and resources offered to Indigenous students at McGill. 

Branches’ hands-on programming focuses on adaptable pedagogy, providing information on higher education in a comprehensible and realistic way. 

Building meaningful relationships 

This relationship between McGill and the Cree Nation of Chisasibi began with a visit to McGill’s campus organized by Indigenous Community Outreach Associate, Kayla Moore, in November of 2022. 

Student and community interest led to the first Outbound Explore initiative in February 2023. This exchange set the tone for future events both on and off campus. 

The partnership has flourished, resulting in six successful collaborations between Branches and the Cree Nation of Chisasibi. 

Collaborative discussions between Branches staff, and Fiona Hoillet, Academic Counsellor at the James Bay Eeyou School, and Brian Dioszeghy, Principal of Big River High School, offered insight into the students, their interests, and their academic progress. This process deepened the Branches team’s understanding and enabled it to customize the tone and content of the trip. 

Students working together 

In her role facilitating the most recent trip, Branches Program Assistant Ana Paula Silva-Reyes organized an icebreaker activity where students worked in groups alongside McGill staff to brainstorm and pitch an idea, product or business. Students worked together to develop a name for their initiative, identify a target audience, and design a logo. 

The activity offered insight into student’s interests and career goals. One group created a health centre that employed both Cree and western medicine, sharing that they wanted to pursue the sciences with a focus on dermatology and medicine. 

A student at the Big River High School shows off beading they created in a computer science workshop

Familiar faces 

Branches staff, Silva-Reyes and Gemma Else also facilitated a series of workshops on pathways to higher education for students in secondary 4 and 5. 

“It was amazing to reconnect with students that I had met and spent time with at Explore McGill in October and during their visit to McGill in November,” said Else. “Students let me know they were happy to see Ana Paula and me again. The familiarity created an environment where students were not afraid to ask questions.” 

Students appreciate seeing familiar faces, said Hoillet. “Often initiatives end up being a one-off. Consistency allows for students to feel more comfortable and build trust.” 

Student feedback 

During the workshop, students were asked how they see life after high school, how they learn best, and what careers interested them. Students were invited to share their answers with the group or write them down on slips of paper, allowing for confidentiality and maximizing participation. 

After each session, students stayed behind to ask questions, ranging from what it is like living in a big city, to the difference between college and university, and how much a school’s reputation really matters in the job market. 

Mindful of the fact that it could be a lot to take in at once, Silva-Reyes Else, and Samantha Nepton, Branches Indigenous Program Assistant, created a toolkit that provides resources on higher education and services available to Indigenous students at McGill for the Sec 4 and 5 students to take home. 

Wide range of workshops 

PhD candidate Noah Kakekaspan developed workshops in partnership with the Trottier Space Institute and McGill Physics Outreach, on space imaging and light waves. Students explored how different astronomical objects reach Earth, and the process with which scientists image light not visible to the human eye. Students tried their hand at the process using coloured beads in the place of pixels. 

Adam Hendricks, PhD, Associate Professor of Bioengineering, Graduate Program Director (Biological and Biomedical Engineering) and member of the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences’ Centre de Recherche en Biologie Structurale, worked with students to isolate DNA from strawberries. The hands-on activity kept students engaged, as they considered the protentional that the study of DNA held. 

Representatives from Mila, PhD student Mashbayar Tugsbayar and Colin Bredenberg, PhD, delivered a workshop on computer science which had students explore the concept of computation and how it relates to the world around them through a beading exercise. The workshop encouraged students to view computers and computation as something that happens in nature. 

Stuart Trenholm, PhD, Associate Professor in the Department of Neurology and Neuroscience at McGill and The Neuro, and Rudi Tong, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher at The Neuro, facilitated a neuroscience workshop on brain processing and the visual system of rabbits. The students coded robots with light sensors as proxies for the eyes and Raspberry Pi computers as the brain. 

“It will be great if we can expand this outreach work to more schools in order to expand the possible impact of these sorts of initiatives,” said Prof. Trenholm. 

Looking forward 

According to Hoillet, the workshops give students a sample of the educational opportunities open to them – something they didn’t always have. 

In the past “students wouldn’t have a response when asked what they wanted to do. They would shrug off the question,” she says. “Now they have more than one option that they are interested in.” 

Community leaders in Chisasibi expressed their appreciation at seeing how McGill has implemented their feedback to make the program stronger and more accessible. “McGill has taken it to heart; students are more engaged as a result,” they said. 

Buoyed by the ongoing success of the program, the Branches team is already planning to have students attend the next iteration of Explore McGill in October, visit McGill during their CEGEP tour in November, and for Outbound to return promoting both the Science and Arts programs that McGill has to offer. 

Hoillet notes that as the partnership grows stronger there has been a “huge increase in interest in McGill” among students in Chisasibi. She credits this to Branches providing resources and activities that highlight what McGill has to offer and bringing awareness to student’s options.  “It is clear that relationship building is foundational to the success of outreach work,” she says. 

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