Rebecca Jamieson is the September 2020 changemaker in the McMaster Women in Tech series. Developed by the Office of the AVP & CTO, ‘McMaster Women in Tech’ is a project that highlights and recognizes women tech changemakers within the McMaster community. Read how our latest changemaker is providing education through innovative curriculum and increasing access to technology.
For the most of my professional life, I have been in education. I started with a social counsellor program and participated in experimental programs designed for Indigenous people. During the Indian control of Indian Education era, I became formally involved in education and worked as a social counsellor here in the Six Nations of the Grand River community.
Then I went on to a teacher education program as my career shifted more to teaching. Many of us in the community were looking for experimental, creative solutions to address the educational needs of students because high school graduation rates were so low. And our access to and participation at university was also very low. Several of our graduate students at McMaster saw the need and came to people in the community, me and others like Harvey Longboat, Dr. Dawn Martin Hill, and others at McMaster to launch the Indigenous Studies program that’s now at McMaster.
We also worked alongside others at McMaster to develop the first programs here at Six Nations Polytechnic while at the same time creating Six Nations Polytechnic itself. We have many students who attended McMaster because of its proximity to the community and because of the Indigenous Studies program. Many students naturally look to that as a stepping stone.
We now have University Consortium Year 1 program at Six Nations Polytechnic. Students come here and finish their first year. If they’re successful, they have a choice of six universities they can attend to complete their undergraduate study. McMaster stepped forward to be the initial host and coordinate that university consortium. And then from there, it just grew to be highly successful for the last twenty-five years. Graduates from that program have become medical doctors, lawyers, social workers, you name it. As we’ve continued to grow, we launched Deyohahá:ge: The Indigenous Knowledge Centre. Deyohahá:ge talks about the two roles, the two paths of learning and knowledge that travel side by side, which is related to some of our treaty concepts. McMaster was instrumental in preparing, funding and advising for several years to launch the Indigenous Knowledge Centre. There’s been a long standing relationship with McMaster and Six Nations Polytechnic over the years and there continues to be even now.
I’ve looked at it both as an opportunity to contribute as an Indigenous educator and an opportunity to learn—to learn what we might want to do and what we might not want to do at Six Nations Polytechnic. I’ve been there long enough to see all the growing pains McMaster went through with various initiatives, such as implementing a student information system. And we’re going through the same thing right now. We’ve been fortunate enough to actually hire someone from McMaster who went through that experience. We have that very practical level, collaborative relationship that happens. I’ve found it to be a very, very valuable learning experience for me, and I hope my contributions have made a difference on the board. It’s very much been a mutually beneficial commitment.
Even though we were well into the new century, our students were still not having success in high school. Our graduation rates were about 40 per cent at best. So, it was time to do something.
Serendipity happened, and I crossed paths with an IBM executive who was interested in assisting us with that. I saw it as an opportunity to bring something different than the standard high school opportunities that we’ve typically seen. Clearly what we were doing wasn’t working, and we needed something new. The idea that we could have a student-focused learning environment imbedded in Indigenous knowledge, language and culture was just too good to turn my back on. I could see such a compelling need with students, parents and the community who all wanted to see opportunities that would provide more and better chances.
We move forward on the premise that our children are just as smart as anybody else’s. They need the right opportunity. We needed to create the right opportunity. As an answer to this concept, we launched the SNP STEAM Academy, a secondary school program that allows students to choose a path to high-skilled jobs. Our goal is to teach science, technology, engineering, arts, and math from an Indigenous perspective in a culturally supportive environment to ensure student success. It has been very successful. We welcome non-Indigenous students to the school, so it’s a reverse of what we’ve historically always experienced—learning in others’ environment but now others come and learn in our environment. The students are excelling and it’s just a joy to see them grow.
We have a really engaged student body who are just excelling, learning, ambitious and may have their eyes set on working with IBM. Our partnership with IBM means there are integrated work placement opportunities and guaranteed interviews when students complete the STEAM Academy program, so there are opportunities if they want to work there.
I remember one IBM event in particular where the outgoing president was giving her last comment and one of the students went. I always take students, and the students always talk for themselves. When the student spoke, he was firm, confident and said, “this is what I’m doing, this is what I’m capable of and this is what I’m going to do in the future.” The Canadian president said that’s the best job interview they had ever experienced and the audience just all applauded. This is a grade 9 student, and he just wowed them. Afterward, the young student said to me, “I’m really after his job.” I told him “Well, you’re probably going to be able to do it.”
We have tech Tuesdays or tech Wednesdays where IBM team volunteers come in and engage the students. It keeps them focused on the practical, reality and application of their learning, so they see potential there for themselves. You see the change in the students. It’s incredible. From grade 9, shy, eyes down, not talking, not looking at anybody to six months later, in the hallway saying, “Hi, how are you doing? I’m off down to my Robotics Club and I’m going to help build a robot.”
Student safety is the number one priority. We have to take cautious steps and make sure that the safety of the learners and their families. We can’t just think about the school—it’s a community too.
Many students had already done online learning, so it wasn’t something that they didn’t know. Connectivity for students was the big challenge. We got through the end of the semester by connecting online where we could and then delivering paper packet learnings to students who did not have any connectivity. Rogers, through our health services here in the community, provided turbo sticks, and that helped a bit, but our cellular connectivity here is poor.
While we look for short-term solutions for the fall, we’re also laying the groundwork for longer-term, systemic infrastructure builds that can be comprehensive for the community, not just for Six Nations Polytechnic students because learning now engages the families. It’s not as much an education front as it is a technology focus that we’ve had to maintain and continue to build that capacity. And we’re fortunate we have we have people within Six Nations Polytechnic that have those skill sets. They’re actively pursuing and solving those issues, but it’s not easy, and it’s very costly. With support from agencies within the community, we want to increase the cellular capacity within the community and add Wi-Fi hubs.
We are challenged to do a lot of formal mentorship because of our size and how we’re funded. We’ve implemented a process of, what I call, growing our own. We’ll hire young students for the summer, cultivate them in areas they have shown interest and bring them back the next summer. We can also start them in as interns with several roles within Six Nations Polytechnic, then from there they can choose a path to develop further.
We just finished a partnership with Western University where several of our staff finished the Master of Professional Education program. That’s one way we grow our own. Our approach to mentorship is more focused on organization building rather than the soft concept of mentorship.
The whole area of learning is going through a change process as far as I can see. I think we’re going to see a shift from standard programs as they’re organized now in post-secondary institutions to more fluid, modular, micro-credential pieces. I encourage people to consider taking things in bits and working at the same time. Currently, everybody’s part of the gig economy, so you have to be, what I call, nimble, flexible, and continuously learning at the same time. My advice is look for opportunities that provide skill sets quickly, apply to them, get an income stream, then you become independent financially and continue on a lifelong learning path.